Everyone experiences anxiety at some point. And several coping strategies work for different people, from talking with trusted friends to various mindfulness practices, attending therapy sessions, and journaling.
This article looks at writing down thoughts to reduce anxiety and improve mental health. I’ll share five journaling methods that can help you collect, organize, and process your thoughts in a healthy manner.
Can Journaling Reduce Anxiety?
Journaling is one of the most effective stress management tools. Writing down your thoughts allows you to release bottled-up feelings and negative thoughts, leading to reduced anxiety and fear-based thinking patterns.
Research has shown that journaling can promote an overall sense of well-being, lessen distress, and reduce anxiety symptoms.
Why is journaling effective for promoting relaxation and reducing anxiety?
It’s simple, really. Your thoughts have a huge impact on how you feel. And writing is a way to channel fearful and worrisome thoughts in a way that benefits your emotional health.
While journaling can help reduce anxious thoughts and feelings, not all methods work for everyone. Here are five ways to journal, whether you’re looking to write every single day or on an as-needed basis.
Journaling Methods for Anxiety Relief and Increased Relaxation
1. Free Writing
The simplest way (in my humble opinion) to journal for anxiety is to just put pen to paper and scribble away!
That’s where free writing comes into the picture.
The journaling method involves writing whatever thoughts are in your head, whether or not they make sense. In fact, you don’t have to be grammatically correct, and there is no need for editing when free-writing.
Think of it like doing a brain dump ― you are streaming your thoughts onto blank pages with just one goal in mind: to record your thoughts.
Free writing is a powerful way to release pent-up emotions. You write without judging the appropriateness of your thoughts. However, while there is no right or wrong way to do this, it is helpful to write something else if you start to feel more stressed or anxious about a train of thought.
When you finish writing, re-read your entry and look for insights on how you truly feel about the topics.
This journaling method is a powerful mental release, but it can feel a bit overwhelming for people who usually have too many racing thoughts. If that’s you, I recommend using the thought diary journaling method below.
2. Keep a Thought Diary
A thought diary is exactly what the name suggests, a record of your thinking patterns, particularly when you feel stressed or anxious.
Keeping a record of your thinking patterns can help you manage anxiety, especially if you prefer a more structured type of writing than free writing. Research shows that a thought diary is an effective cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) tool for positively impacting anxiety and negative beliefs.
To use this journaling method, create five columns in your journal and label them as follows:
- Case: Write down the current situation or “case” in this column. For example, “My partner cheated,” or “I have to make a PowerPoint presentation in the office.”
- Feeling: Briefly describe what you feel about the case or situation.
- Thinking: Write down exactly what you are thinking about the situation. In the example of an office presentation, you might think, “I’m going to make a fool of myself in front of everyone!” This process is meant to be an authentic record of your thoughts, so don’t edit yourself here. As you keep track of your thoughts over a while, you will be able to see patterns and how they change over time.
- Illusions: Go over the “feeling” and “thinking” columns and see if you can pinpoint any irrational and unfounded reasoning. Ask yourself if your anxious feelings are based on facts or mere assumptions.
- Reality: In this column, write down a more realistic, evidence-based outcome of the situation. Ask yourself what realistic actions you can take based on the available facts.
You might not be a certified therapist, but keeping a thought diary is one of the simplest journaling methods and a practical self-help approach to reducing anxiety.
3. Make a Gratitude List
For me, one of the most effective journaling methods is making a list of all the big and small things I’m grateful for. Gratitude instantly helps you refocus, shifting your mind from anxious thoughts to happier, thankful ones.
Here’s why gratitude dispels anxiety.
Fearful, worrisome thoughts and genuine thoughts of appreciation cannot coexist. You can’t be in both states at the same time; one has to give way for the other.
In other words, when you are anxious, fearful, or excessively worried, it’s a sure sign that you have lost sight of the many blessings in your life, at least at that moment.
Each time you feel anxious or need to increase relaxation, grab a pen and write down a handful of things you are thankful for in your special gratitude journal. It doesn’t have to be a recent job promotion, a substantial inheritance from a long-lost uncle, or anything big.
Think of all the simple blessings we tend to overlook, like family, friends, good health, and fresh air. Don’t worry if your gratitude list seems repetitive; you can never be too grateful for the good in your life.
Besides, the more consistently you write, the more you discover new things to add to your gratitude list.
4. Expressive Writing
Another way to gain insight into your deepest thoughts and feelings is expressive writing. This form of therapeutic journaling involves writing down your thoughts on a specific emotional challenge and its effect on your life.
Usually, you write continuously for about 20 minutes, exploring extremely personal emotional events and situations. The aim of this practice is to make sense of something that triggers anxious feelings.
By observing a past experience and the associated thoughts and feelings, you can gain new insights and perspectives about an emotionally stressful event or situation.
Keep in mind that expressive writing can be quite challenging, as sitting with difficult emotions may trigger sadness. The good news is that you are more likely to feel relief after the practice and come out of it with greater clarity.
5. Creative Journaling
Creative journaling is one of my favorite methods when I need to escape life’s stressors. By letting your imagination take over, creative journaling allows you to focus on something truly enjoyable in the present moment.
Spend about 15 to 30 minutes writing a detailed description of what you want. Suspend your disbelief, fears, and worries, step out of your current reality for those minutes, and permit yourself to freely describe your ideal life or situation in writing.
The good thing about creative journaling is that you are not limited to writing. You can draw or doodle in your journal, color or paint, or make a list of things you like.
The bottom line is to thoroughly lose yourself in the moment so much that you forget any worrisome thoughts, even if it is temporary.
Journal Prompts for Anxiety
Knowing the journaling methods to relieve anxiety is one thing; figuring out where and how to begin writing is a different ball game entirely.
If it’s your first time journaling, you may struggle to write down your feelings and, like many people, spend a chunk of your time staring at a blank page.
It can feel quite intimidating to start streaming your emotions and thoughts onto paper. I mean, where do you begin?
Thankfully, a journal prompt gives you a head start on what to write. Consider the following journal prompts whenever you feel stuck or need a little nudge to start writing.
Free Writing Prompts
- What is one thing you are so sick of?
- What is something you need to let go of?
- In what way have anxious thoughts held you back recently?
- Where do you spend most of your time, present, past, or future?
Thought Diary Prompts
- Keep a list of your first thoughts in the mornings.
- Write 1 or 2 go-to affirmations to repeat each time you feel anxious
- What signs do you notice before your anxiety peaks? Make a list of your anxiety triggers.
- Today, I am grateful for…
- Write down some nice things people tell you or say about you.
- Make a list of the things that made your day feel better.
Expressive Writing Prompts
- List 2 to 3 things that scare you. Explain why you think these things scare you.
- If you could go back in time, what is one thing you wish you could change?
- Try to retrace the origin of your anxious thoughts about specific topics, events, or situations.
Creative Journal Prompts
- If you had a perfect day, what would it look like?
- Describe a time you were successful despite feeling anxious.
- Write a letter to your future self.
All the journaling methods work; one is not better than the other. In fact, you can combine multiple methods if you want.
The most important thing is identifying a journaling technique that helps bring more calmness into your life and practice your journaling habit consistently.