Dealing with negativity and stress through journaling
I’ve talked a bit about my positive thoughts log on this blog before, but the opposite side of that coin is a more serious bit of journaling altogether. In fact, this whole post is going to be a bit more serious than my usual stuff, but bear with, because it’s incredibly useful and important.
I’ve struggled with anxiety for my whole life, and the worry diary technique was the main thing that helped me get to where I am now, which is pretty much okay. Anxiety is very common in students and young people – so many of my friends at uni who were never anxious before have gone through the same thing as me because of the crazy academic pressure everyone is under.
What are worries?
For the purposes of this blog post, when I talk about worries I talk about any negative, intrusive thoughts related to anxiety and/or depression, or more material concepts such as being stressed about an exam or worrying about the health of a family member. You don’t have to have any kind of mental health issue for this technique to help, nor do I expect it to work for everyone!
The reason the worry diary works so well is that writing thoughts down engages a different part of the brain to just thinking or talking about them; this means that when you come to challenge them, it’s much more effective! Rather like making a to-do list in your bullet journal, this is a form of externalising the intrusive thoughts that occur to you in everyday life.
When to worry?
When I first started using the worry diary, I used it as an immediate solution to my anxiety. I kept it with me at all times, and where possible I wrote down each worry that I had during the day, literally keeping a diary of all the things I was worrying about, how strongly I believed in them and how strong the emotions were that they elicited. Then at the end of the day, I went back over each one and challenged it, plus I reconsidered how strongly I believed it now, possibly after the event that I was worrying about had happened. I’ll call this one the “take it as it comes” method of dealing with worry.
Now that I have an idea of the types of worry that I experience, and I just need to manage them, I instead use the worry diary as a daily journal. Every evening at a particular time (my “worry time”) I find a place to sit and write down all of my worries for the day – all of the nasty stuff that’s on my mind, basically! It’s important to do this somewhere that you don’t sleep or study (i.e. don’t sit on your bed or at your desk!) Go somewhere entirely unrelated like your kitchen, garden, anywhere that won’t be affected by the negativity that you’re dealing with. Then, I write my worries for the day down on a page with the date and time, always writing on alternate lines so that I’ve got space to challenge them.
How do I challenge worries?
When challenging thoughts, I make sure to always use a different colour pen; I usually write worries in black, and I prefer to challenge them in a nice bright colour, such as pink, orange, purple or green. Sometimes it’s also nice to use small stickers next to each thought to acknowledge that the thought has been challenged.
Thought challenges fall roughly into three categories, much like worries. First of all, examine your worry and ask yourself if there is anything practical that you can do about it. For example, if you are worried about not having enough money to pay the rent this month, consider what you can do to change this. Could you ask a friend or family member for money? Could you work overtime? Is your landlord forgiving and likely to let you wait a week to get the money together? Write down a list of ideas and pick one to do. Then break it into manageable steps e.g. Phone boss, ask for more hours, etc. You may need to do this on a separate page, maybe as a little mind map.
If you decide that there is nothing practical that you can do about your worry, then you have two more options. Firstly, the It’s Not My Problem method (also known as the There’s Nothing I Can Do About This method). Perhaps you are worried that a family member who lives far away in the city will get hit by a bus and die. Now firstly, this is one of those worries that the brain often pops up in an annoyingly random fashion. It is extremely unlikely to actually happen! You need to remind yourself of this and write it down. Secondly, even in the incredibly unlikely event that it did happen, what would you be able to do about it? You can’t follow them around stopping them from crossing roads, and you can’t stop buses from driving around cities; especially if you live far away from them! So the thing to do is to write all this down, and dismiss the worry as Not My Problem. Many worries about bad things happening to loved ones or friends can be dismissed this way, although it may be difficult at first.
Finally, the most challenging of all thought challenges is where you have genuine negative thoughts. These often pop into your head at random times and won’t go away. As an example, I’ll take “None of my friends like me, they find me annoying”, a common thought of young people at university and one that I’ve had myself many times. There are lots of things that you can do to challenge this kind of thought. The easiest method is to think of some evidence that directly challenges that, for example remembering that yesterday, a friend who I’ve only known a few weeks told me that she thinks I’m a really interesting person and she’s glad we met. This takes care of the “None” part of the worry, since if just one friend obviously likes me, then I can’t possibly generalise the statement to cover all of my friends!
Consider the second part of the statement, which is a classic example of “mind-reading” i.e. believing that you know what other people are thinking or what they are going to do. Now, most people are actually so wrapped up in worrying about their own lives that they don’t give a shit what you’re doing with yours. Say you accidentally got a new friend’s name wrong in front of them (guilty!) and feel like you just want the ground to swallow you up and never to be seen again. You may dwell on it for hours afterwards, when in fact they’ve forgotten it already and are wondering if you noticed the tomato sauce stain on their shirt during that same conversation. It is very unlikely that your friends don’t like you, otherwise why would they still be talking to you? Why would they still be asking you to hang out? Most people, if they don’t like someone, will make it pretty damn obvious.
Thirdly, the statement “they find me annoying” is catastrophizing. A good way to challenge this is to consider whether you find your friends annoying; now, the answer may be yes in some cases, but this is incredibly normal! Now consider whether this affects whether you want to spend time with them; the answer is almost definitely no! The point of having friends if that you acknowledge your differences and put up with each other’s flaws, perhaps making each other better people in the process. So even in the incredibly unlikely event that your friends do find you even mildly annoying, they’re still your friends, and they’re still here! They like you enough that they are willing to put up with it to spend time with you. Awww.
The worry diary technique is a very helpful little tool to have in your arsenal against anxiety, stress and in some cases depression. I find it an excellent counterpoint to my bullet journal and prefer keeping my positive thoughts in my bujo and my negative thoughts in my Worry Diary. However, it is not a substitute for proper therapy, or indeed medication if needed, and if you feel like you are anxious, depressed or experiencing any other symptoms of mental health problems, I urge you to see a doctor.
In the UK, you can speak to your GP and they will refer you to your local mental health practitioner, who can offer you a wide range of options for therapy. You can choose to talk to someone on the phone, in person, in a group, or even by email or online chat services. I learned about the worry diary technique while undergoing several years of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which helped me enormously. Many of the other techniques I learned there were also very helpful and I would recommend it to anyone struggling with anxiety, even if you feel that it is not that serious.
This has been a very serious post about some very serious issues, but I hope it’s helped. I also highly recommend checking out the Pacifica and Headspace apps if you haven’t already. If you ever want to chat to me about anything, you can DM me on Instagram or email firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information you can contact MIND on 0300 123 3393 or visit their website. NHS Choices also provide lots of easy to access information about mental health services. If you are in the UK and you urgently need someone to talk to, you can contact Samaritans on 116 123. If you are in the US and want more information, you can visit mentalhealth.gov or contact SAMHSA Treatment Referral Helpline 1‑877‑SAMHSA7 (1‑877‑726‑4727). In an emergency call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1‑800‑273‑TALK (8255); they also run an online chat. Here is a list of international and global crisis hotlines for most countries.