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The Unexpected Effect Journaling Had on My Anxiety

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Like many people living with anxiety, it took me years until I was properly diagnosed. For a long time, I thought that I was simply a stressed person — a Type A personality, a leader. My affinity for being 20 minutes early to everything was something I applauded myself for. I didn’t yet recognize that the mental spiral that made me need to be early for everything was also a sign of mental illness. When I graduated from college and lost control of my depression, a diagnosis I had been aware of for years, my anxiety reached a new low point. I wasn’t able to keep a job because I struggled with the social interactions that came with assisting customers. I barely left the house out of anxiety-based fears around driving. I lost contact with most of my friends due to anxiety-based insecurities that kept me from reaching out to them or keeping the plans we had made.

Feeling worthless and incompetent — a new and scary feeling for a former straight-A student, cheerleader and actress — I became passively suicidal. The tiniest inconvenience turned into a melodrama worthy of a daytime Emmy award, which was humiliating because I had always prized myself on being a composed and capable person. My thoughts felt felt uncontrollable. The thought of making plans to leave the house often left me crying on the couch, unable to stop myself from obsessing over every tiny detail that could go wrong or right on my journey to the library. And by the time I had gathered the courage to leave the house, the sun would already have gone down or my family members would be home from work, and I would still be in the same spot I had been in that morning: on the couch, in my baggy sweatpants, with a movie on and junk food beside me.

One holiday season, I was gifted with a journal. I would never have expected a diary to change my life, let alone help save it.

Like every aspiring writer, I grew up hearing about the importance of forcing yourself to write every day. I had tried and failed to keep diaries multiple times in my youth, but I decided that this time would be different. I wanted to feel successful at one thing. I wanted just one thing to do that would help me get out of bed in the morning. If I could accomplish one small task, who was to say that I couldn’t accomplish a second or a third after that?

So I set myself the task of writing one page, front and back, in my diary every day. It didn’t matter what it was about — sometimes I cataloged the movies I watched, or what my cat had done that day. None of it was terribly interesting or noteworthy, but that is how the journal started. What I hadn’t realized was how cathartic writing about my feelings would be. There is no judgement in a journal, and there is no room for anything but honesty. What would be the point of keeping a private journal full of lies?

More importantly than the liberation of being completely honest on paper without feeling like I was burdening anyone with my dark thoughts, was the calming effect that writing had on me. I accidentally discovered that journaling helped pull me out of my spiraling panic attacks. I kept my journal in my purse, afraid of losing it if I left it anywhere but on my person, so I had it on me the day of a minor panic attack. I had made plans to get coffee with a friend and had arrived at our meeting spot, only to discover that she had had car issues and wouldn’t make it.

Perhaps to another person, this would be nothing. But an incident of the slightest inconvenience brought me to a teary breakdown in my car. The windows felt like they were pushing in to suffocate me, and I let out a piercing scream as all of the repressed frustration in my body caused my hands to shake and my teeth to chatter. My mind was racing, as it does during a panic attack, and all I could think of were horrible thoughts about myself and why my very close and kind friend had probably made up the car troubles to avoid spending time with me.

Without thinking, I blindly reached for the red diary and began journaling my thoughts. Rather than filling the page up with vile words about myself, I found that the slow movement of my hand forced my thoughts to slow. For the first time in over a year, I had found a way to quiet the frightened, hateful voice in my head. I tried to scribble out everything going through my mind, but there was no possible way for my hand to keep up with my anxiety, and I found that if I focused on my writing rather than my thoughts, the anxious voice slowed to silence. Focusing on remaining present and straightening my penmanship had slowed my thoughts down until the anxiety became just a dull thrumming I was able to ignore.

The next time I was struggling to leave the house, I forced myself to pull out my diary and write out why I was afraid. Again, the soothing movement of my hand moving across the paper slowed and organized my thoughts into a more manageable version of my fear.

At first, my diary was a safe space where I harbored all of my negative thoughts, but eventually I found that if I forced myself to find “the silver lining” at the end of each anecdote in my journal, then I was more likely to find “the silver lining” in my day-to-day thinking.

I had read somewhere that changing the way one thinks can help alleviate their depression, but I had lived with depression long enough to believe that positive thinking was no kryptonite for my depressions symptoms. I still question the validity of this logic, but the proof I have in my journal seems undeniable to me now. I never let myself end an entry on a negative note, that way I can never encourage myself to self-pity. I called it the “positive ending.” That, combined with the way my slow writing forced my anxious thoughts to slow, has been enough for me to feel changed by the time I finish my daily entry.

As weeks passed, my penmanship grew smaller and neater and my mind began to feel lighter. I don’t think my anxiety will never be “cured,” but I have now found a coping mechanism that keeps my heart from pounding itself into a migraine. I consider this to be a huge step forward.

It’s been a year since the first time I realized my diary could be used as a coping mechanism rather than just a confidant for when I was down, and I try to tell every anxious person I know about my trick. The rules are flexible from person to person, but I do suggest a few guidelines:

1. Find a journal with a cover that makes you smile.

2. Recognize when your thoughts are spiraling.

3. Focus on what you’re writing rather than whatever your anxiety is “tricking” you into believing is true.

4. Make sure you end each post with a positive “silver lining.” Even if that silver lining is as thin or simple as, “Whatever bad thing happened today was awful, but thank goodness it didn’t occur last year when my depression and anxiety had even more control over my daily thoughts.”

I find that reminding myself of my progress has been one of the most comforting aspects of cataloguing my thoughts. There’s nothing as satisfying as flipping through the pages of my year and seeing how far I have come, and that I can attribute my improvement to my little handwritten book of thoughts. It sometimes feels like I’ve only taken small steps, especially when there is a long road ahead of me; but finding a sense of control at the tip of my pen, and realizing that I can literally close the book on my anxiety, has brought relief into my life.

Before I was journaling, I didn’t realize how many things I would refrain from doing out of the fear of being anxious. My anxiety was giving me anxiety. But finding my coping mechanism, my diary, and being able to carry it with me almost everywhere, has given me the strength to start venturing out more. Work isn’t as scary when I know I can journal in my diary to center my thoughts. An agreement to meet friends isn’t as threatening when I know I can always excuse myself to make a “phone call” and diary-out my worries in the car. And getting out of bed doesn’t seem as daunting when I know I can turn to my diary whenever I need it.

A lot of people who I have suggested this coping mechanism to have asked me if I truly believe that maintaining a diary has “healed” my anxiety. The answer is no, of course not. I’m not sure if I will ever be fully “healed,” but my journal has saved me from losing control of my life, and for now, that’s enough.

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Thinkstock photo via Christian Horz

Originally published: June 21, 2017
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