Ever wake up in the middle of the night because your mind is racing? Or maybe you find it hard to fall asleep in the first place because you're thinking about the day's events? I know I've done both. It may have been because of the change in seasons, but I was finding it even harder to get to sleep. And when I did, I didn't stay asleep for long. I say it was the weather, but I also know it's because I was feeling more anxious than usual.
Some background: I'm a worrier. I'm a full-fledged hypochondriac, always catastrophizing everything, and seriously once asked my in-laws to build an underground bunker in case the apocalypse happened. But while I can usually push my worries aside and sleep (surprising, I know, considering the above), lately, I was having more trouble. The thing about anxiety is that you never know when it's going to crop back up. You could be feeling fine, and then all of a sudden it's back.
Of course, I'd tried breathing techniques, done a touch of mindfulness, and sprayed my pillow with a relaxing lavender scent, but nothing was working. I'm probably not alone. A study in JAMA Network Open found that one-third of adults in the United States are reporting anxiety or depression. It should come as no surprise that this number has increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
After googling tips on how to cope (because obviously), I discovered that journaling might be the answer. To try it out, I decided to start writing down my thoughts for a month and then see how I felt about it at the end of the experiment. I also spoke with Juanita Wells, director of clinical development at New Method Wellness, and Kristina Karlsson, founder of iconic stationery brand kikki.K, for their input on the benefits of keeping a journal.
Meet the Expert
- Juanita Wells, CADC-II, ICADC, is a Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor II and the director of clinical development at New Method Wellness. She helped expand the role of the LGBTQ+, trauma, and aftercare programs at her facility.
- Kristina Karlsson is the founder of the global Swedish design brand kikki.K, specializing in journals and stationery. She is also the author of the book Your Dream Life Starts Here.
Keep scrolling to see how to write in your journal and why it could be great for keeping your anxiety in check.
The Benefits of Journaling
Getting your thoughts out of your head and onto paper can be beneficial for several reasons. "When we put something in our journal, it can help us remain accountable to ourselves, our feelings, our purpose, and plan," says Wells. "Keeping a journal can be a great way to make our hopes, aspirations, and dreams believable and attainable."
Journaling also helps you better organize your thoughts. According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, "When you have a problem, and you're stressed, keeping a journal can help you identify what's causing that stress or anxiety. Then, once you've identified your stressors, you can work on a plan to resolve the problems and, in turn, reduce stress."
In a piece published by Harvard Medical School, a few findings revealed how writing could help stress. One study conducted by James W. Pennebaker, who currently chairs the psychology department at the University of Texas, Austin, asked 46 healthy college students to write about "either personally traumatic life events or trivial topics" for 15 minutes on four consecutive days. Six months following the experiment, those who had written about traumatic events visited the health center less often.
Can Journaling Help Ease Anxiety?
Can writing down your anxious feelings help? "Absolutely," says Wells, "Especially stream-of-conscious journaling, which, put simply, is the practice of writing down whatever comes to mind."
She explains that this a stellar approach to decluttering your mind of all its demands. "Just remember not to edit or critique your stream-of-consciousness writing. Commit to it for an established period of time and let everything flow unabridged," she explains.
If you have depression, however, Wells says not to feel pressured to write in a journal. "You will see journaling being more beneficial for those struggling with anxiety versus depression," she notes.
If you have depression, write only if you feel like it—and don't force it. "Oftentimes, not feeling like journaling after being asked to when struggling with depression will only make a person feel like 'its one more thing' they can’t do right," says Wells.
How to Journal
Wells says to organize your journaling however you prefer. Do what feels natural to you. "Some write by hand, add drawings, add photos and mementos. Those with anxiety will tend to want to be very organized," she says. "Write for the joy of writing, not for the content. This should be viewed as an experience, not a destination. "
Wells shares the following journaling tips:
- "Find a journal or notebook that lifts your spirits," says Wells. Whether that means it has a pretty design on the front or colorful pages, seek out a journal you'll look forward to writing in.
- Plan a time to write. "Do you want to write in the morning or prefer evenings? Give yourself a time limit when you first start," says Wells. "[That could be] 15 to 20 minutes once a day. Or possibly every other day. It’s all about progress, not perfection!"
- Don't focus on a word count. "Never try to meet a goal when journaling," Wells adds. "Unless this goal is to calm yourself. If you are trying to calm yourself, continuing writing until you feel relaxed."
- Get in the habit of setting aside time each day. "Stream-of-conscious journaling is perfect to do every morning or night."
- Make your own decision about whether to show others what you write. "Sharing journal entries with your therapist can be very helpful," Wells says. "Only if it's what you would like to do. Never share if you do not want to."
- Consider saving your journals. Wells says you don't have to keep all of them, but it can be helpful. "Always keep and reflect whenever you want to. You’ll be surprised to see how much you grow over time."
Don't feel pressured to write in a journal if you would rather type out your feelings. "There are some great journal applications that can provide a more secure platform. Check out Journey, Daybook, and Flexible Journal on the app store for Android and iOS," says Wells. "Try several different formats to find which one works best for you."
More Journaling Tips
There is no one "right way" to journal. I like to do a mix of two approaches. One is to write anything and everything as it pops into my head, not caring about my handwriting. The other is to then bullet-point any current concerns at the bottom. I find this helps me pin down exactly what I'm worried about.
Karlsson reveals that she keeps a few journals. Every morning, to help with pressure, she writes "three pages of unconscious writing." Using a thin book (which she can destroy), she writes three pages of A5 size (about six by eight inches), switching between English and Swedish, and doesn't care about spelling mistakes or handwriting.
"It's just getting things out of my head," she tells us. "This is one way to cope with certain things, particularly when you've got a lot to work on." She will then destroy the pages, as she feels it wouldn't help to analyze them. However, she also has another journal that she calls her life journal. Here is where she writes about things she wants to remember, she says, "like what I'm grateful for."
While you don't have to throw away pages, it might be a good idea to keep a more negative journal separate from your more positive writing.
The Final Takeaway
I hadn't given much thought initially to how I would do my journaling, but the format I came up with was this: one page per day, date top right, and a couple of bullet points at the end (sort of like an abridged version of what I'd written). For a month, every day before I went to bed, I would write in my journal. But the big question remains: Did it help? For me, yes.
Even on nights when I felt like I could fall asleep immediately, I still decided to write about my day. However, if I wasn't worried about anything, then I struggled to write something. That said, I took the approach of simply writing down events that had happened during the day. Over the month, I found that not only did I get to sleep better, but I also stayed asleep longer and didn't have dreams that were quite as crazy (which always makes me feel like I'm sleeping better). As a bonus, I feel like my writing has improved, so I'm going to continue doing it.