Like most mental health issues, there’s a spectrum of the severity of anxiety. For some of us, it’s situational, and something that crops up in response to circumstances. For others, it’s a daily interference to life. Wherever you’re at on the anxiety spectrum, you’re far from alone. In the U.S., over 19 percent of adults have an anxiety disorder, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. 

One potentially helpful tool to cope with the overwhelm: journaling. It’s an easy, free, low-risk activity that might help you get to the root of what’s troubling you. “Journaling provides you with a continuous self-awareness tool, enabling you to track progress, identify patterns, and communicate more effectively with the members of your care team and support system,” says Caleb Birkhoff, LMFT, of Caleb Birkhoff Therapy in San Francisco.

The Benefits of Journaling for Anxiety

Getting your thoughts down on paper can come with some powerful benefits. According to a 2022 study published by the National Institutes of Health, (NIH) a 20-minute journaling session can have a positive effect on mental health outcomes, especially in conjunction with other therapies and/or medication. Expressive writing and gratitude journaling are two of the most common types of journaling to combat the effects of anxiety, and both of these two practices have a “low risk of adverse effects” and place an “emphasis on self-efficacy,” according to the authors of the aforementioned study.

Journaling Can Decrease Overall Distress

If you’ve ever felt catharsis from jotting down your problems, you’ve experienced the phenomenon that underlies journaling for anxiety. Writing can get disturbing, troubling thoughts out of our heads. A 2018 NIH research study indicated that people with anxiety who completed a positive-affect journaling program had less mental distress after 12 weeks. They also had fewer overall depressive and anxious symptoms and greater resilience.

Journaling Identifies Fears

Sometimes anxiety can feel like a nebulous cloud swirling over your head. When you purposefully tease apart your problems in writing, it can bring them into focus. From here, they can become more manageable. 

“There might not be obvious right answers for you initially, but slowing down the process by writing them out opens up the opportunity to find meaningful solutions.” 

Journaling Helps You Find Solutions

Once you’ve identified problems or fears that are bringing you anxiety, the next step is tackling them with solutions. (Perhaps you journal your way through what to do about your nasty boss or how you’re gonna handle it when your difficult family members stay with you over the holidays.)

Birkhoff says it’s best to strike a balance between writing about anxious thoughts and seeking solutions to them. “There might not be obvious right answers for you initially, but slowing down the process by writing them out (and keeping them right-sized) opens up the opportunity to find meaningful solutions.” 

Gratitude Journaling Boosts Positive Feelings

Different types of journaling are useful for different aspects of anxiety. Sometimes you might simply want to vent to your journal about scary or upsetting stuff—and that’s OK. Other times, it’s more constructive to express gratitude. Research shows that expressing thanks in writing can be a powerful anxiety-buster. A 2022 NIH study concluded that during the COVID-19 pandemic, a brief gratitude writing exercise decreased people’s stress and negative affect. In other words, this practice helped shift people out of a bad mood.

Journaling May Help You Communicate with Your Therapist

When you journal, you’re not writing to your therapist, of course, but it may be helpful to bring your written volume to therapy sessions. Refer to it to explain thoughts and emotions to your mental health provider. Birkhoff points out that the written word is an effective communication tool.

Getting Started with Anxiety Journaling

Even if you don’t think of yourself as a writer, journaling for anxiety can still be right for you. If you’re new to the practice, consider these tips for getting off the ground. 

Get a Journal You Like

Just like snagging some cute workout gear can make you more likely to get to the gym, getting an aesthetically pleasing journal might draw you to write more often. Look for a notebook or journal that suits your style. 

A guided journal can also get the juices flowing when you’re not sure where to begin. The best guided journals (each has been approved or recommended by mental health professionals) provide instructions on daily practices with prompts to structure each journaling session.

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