What do you do when you feel stressed or worried? Do you vent to anyone who will listen? Or do you calmly jot down your thoughts in a journal?
For many people, the answer is probably the former — and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. For some, venting may lead to a cathartic release of emotions.
However, using a journal to jot down your stresses and worries can be an effective tool to help you lean into uncomfortable emotions. It can also help you dissect what you’re feeling and provide you with a path forward.
As someone who has often been described as a “born worrier,” I know all too well how debilitating worry can be.
Worry can feed feelings of anxiety, stress, and fear. It can lead to catastrophizing. I can overthink even the most seemingly straightforward circumstance and work myself into a panic.
Much to my relief, I recently found a way to ease the jumble of worrisome thoughts in my head. It’s really quite simple: get them out on paper with a worry journal.
Like a lot of worriers, I often trawl Google to find the answers to my anxieties.
It was one such worry-fueled Google search that helped me stumble upon worry journaling, an effective self-care practice that can help manage stress and anxiety.
The very first time I tried it, I felt a sense of calm wash over me. It was as if those racing thoughts in my head had been halted. I felt like I was inhabiting a different headspace, one that wasn’t consumed with constant overthinking.
Many of my worries didn’t seem so bad once they were out on paper. Others were so unrealistic that they weren’t ever likely to happen. That gave me comfort.
According to Dublin-based counselor and psychotherapist Fiona Hall, it’s common for worries to appear bigger in our heads than they are in reality.
“They can all start fueling each other, merging and making our stress levels rise,” Hall says. “Writing down concerns and worries enables us to gain perspective over what are genuine concerns and hypothetical worries.”
In addition to providing perspective, journaling can help us be more aware of how we’re interpreting things.
“It can help us process our worries so we can become more aware of the difference between the event and our interpretation of the event,” says Hall.
To get started with a worry journal, pick the method that appeals to you the most.
Personally, I’m a fan of uninhibited scrawling. I like to write the worry at the top of the page like a title, then get every thought that comes into my head out onto the page beneath it.
For situations I can’t control, I write out every possible scenario that might arise.
Choose your method
- Grab a pen and paper and write down everything you’re worried about, big and small.
- Set a 3-minute timer and make a list. The idea is you’ll run out of worries to write before the timer is up.
- Fill a page for each worry and get to the root of the issue. (This has been the most effective for me, at least).
- What are you really worried about?
- What do you fear is going to happen?
- Where might the worry have come from?
The worry spidergram
When it comes to worry journal techniques, Hall is a fan of making a spidergram, also known as a spider diagram. To make your own, follow the steps below:
- Draw a bubble in the center of your paper and write “My Worries” inside.
- Draw surrounding bubbles and fill them with your worries and concerns.
- Get a new page and put one of the surrounding worries into the center bubble.
- Add surrounding bubbles with the following headings:
- Initial Feelings
- Initial Thoughts
- Thoughts After Reflection
- Continue to break down the worry into smaller and smaller bubbles.
“This helps us process and lower our stress levels,” Hall says.
If you’re the type to feel flooded with worry before you’ve even set foot out of bed, Hall advises keeping a notebook by your bedside. Jot down any worrying thoughts as soon as you wake.
According to Hall, you can worry journal daily until you wake up without stress. When it comes to big worries, rely on the spidergram.
It can be helpful to set aside 30 minutes every day to work on your worries, Hall suggests.
“This provides permission to explore [your] worries but also contains [them] so they don’t become pervasive,” she says.
I find worry journaling as needed works best for me. When I feel like I’m in the grip of worry, I know it’s time to grab my notebook.
Whatever method you choose, Hall says it’s important to do it in a free-flowing style, without monitoring your language and spelling or analyzing what you’re writing.
“Then later in the day, when you’re feeling more rational, you can come back to the list and reevaluate if these are rational concerns or hypothetical worries,” says Hall.
Writing down your worries is just the start, emphasizes Hall. Analyzing and reflecting is a key part of the process too.
“Helpful worry journaling can allow [people] to process the event, review their initial feelings and thoughts, and prompt alternative realistic thinking so they can bring that learning forward,” she says.
Hall cautions that journaling alone may not be enough.
“I would be mindful about using a worry journal that just lists worries and doesn’t allow for reflection, reframing, and processing.”
After you’ve tried worry journaling, you may expect to feel a whole range of emotions.
“Most [people] find the act of emptying their heads and gaining perspective relieving and empowering,” says Hall. “It’s about differentiating between rational concerns and hypothetical worries. It’s about focusing on what is within our ability to change and manage.”
If, like me, you often feel consumed with worry, keeping a worry journal can be a powerful tool to help you manage it.
Victoria Stokes is a writer from the United Kingdom. When she’s not writing about her favorite topics, personal development, and well-being, she usually has her nose stuck in a good book. Victoria lists coffee, cocktails, and the color pink among some of her favorite things. Find her on Instagram.