I write every day. It may not be a lot of words. It might not be for everyone to read. But I write every day.
Notes for future projects around the house
And some days, even a chapter or two of a book.
I have notebooks for just about everything under the sun. Through the years, I collected quite a number of them. But try as I might, I could never make one into a diary and stick to it. I simply had too many fictional stories to occupy those pages.
So, as I’ve tried to mend and heal from my mother’s sudden death this past year, many people recommended writing in a journal. But this time around, they said to write for no one else but me. No edits, rewrites, polishing, prompts, or word counts. Just the paper and me; the emotions, brewing close to the top, that most likely I try to bury deep inside myself.
Some people call it Morning Pages, taken from the concept from Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way. Other people call them diaries or daybooks. I’ve tried them. Cup of coffee at my side, pen in hand, I lasted maybe a week, two at best. And then my notebooks become places for my magical worlds again. That is until I came across the idea of a Worry Journal.
Looking only at the name, I hesitated to start one. I had enough worry in my life; why would I want to attract more of it? Why would I concentrate on it even more when I just wanted to run from it? Aha! That’s when the lightbulb went off.
Wasn’t that the whole point? Wasn’t I exhausted enough to want just to face that worry head-on and tackle the s.o.b. once and for all? The worry began to aggravate my chronic pain with all of its weight. It added to my already-fatigued mind. So, I opened a brand-new journal and confronted my worry. “It’s you and me. Let’s go.”
A Worry Journal is precisely like it sounds. You handwrite your stressors down on paper. Sounds easy enough. But there’s a real science behind this simple-looking act. Writing the worries down helps your brain acknowledge that these things are genuinely and indeed important to you and that they are real. Even if people have convinced you they are irrational, the physical stress (how your body reacts to them) is very much real. I mean, let’s face it, have you really stopped to think about what worry does to your body? Let’s take a look.
The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) studied the effects of daily worrying in 2019. They concluded that “worry and preservative thought are transdiagnostic processes” linked to negative health effects.” In everyday speak, that means they found that when a person is prone to worry and anxiousness on a daily basis, there is an increase in coronary heart disease, heightened cortisol response, a lowered immune system, and sleep issues. All of this can cause an early mortality rate. So it’s worth noting that the experts stress that “understanding more about the function of worry is important.”
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the nation’s medical research agency. They have spent years examining the correlation between physical and mental health in chronically anxious patients. Their studies have shown that during and up to two hours after a “worry episode,” there is a significantly higher blood pressure level, heart rate, and endocrine activity. That was extremely telling to them; overly anxious people sustained “hyper-vigilance to threatening stimuli at a neuro level.” What does this mean? Worry heightens your negative emotions and reactions to things. It increases and sustains dangerous levels of these symptoms.
As a lifelong worrier myself, I can hear you say, ‘That’s great. But how does that help me? I’m stuck in this worry rut, and no amount of writing will help me.’ And I would say, ‘I get ya. I thought the same thing until recently. My brain is wired to dwell on the what-ifs and the would’as, could’as, and should’as. And it’s a long process to build this uncomfortable habit. But I’m giving it a try.’ Why? Because I recently figured out that all humans are conditioned to compare the current threat to those perceived events in their mind’s eye. Some people just tend to react more strongly to the present danger as if it were the feared threat after all. I’ve always been suspicious of balcony railings since I am afraid of heights. My sons know that if they even walk towards a railing, I will develop a genuine fear of them falling to their deaths, resulting in a stomachache, racing pulse, and at times, a cold sweat. They are young adults, yet I still tackle the fear whenever we encounter a banister.
Jeffrey Alan Gray was a British research psychologist who developed the Behavioral Inhibition System (BIS) in 1970. This concept (how someone’s brain observes their surroundings and how their bodies react to them) is the foundation of the Worry Journal. I could go into how the hippocampus plays a role in our worries, but I think we now know why doctors regularly encourage their patients to journal.
Here’s the best way to look at it, in my opinion. You can only write one word at a time, no matter how quickly you try to get it all on paper. It’s still going to come out one word at a time. It forces your brain to slow down, organize what you want to say, and focus on them… one at a time. See the theme?
Now you start building the scaffolding to the healing process on that new foundation. Keep your journals and look back at them after a set amount of time. Look for patterns or themes, even situations that now signal those trigger responses. You probably are asking, why revisit negative times when I’m supposed to find a way to leave them behind? I thought the same thing but then learned that you’re using those negative emotions and situations to understand your fears and concerns. And better yet, find a reliable way to resolve them and move on in a proper and healthy way.
I will leave you with this thought. Stress is “a response to a perceived threat.” Anxiety is “the body’s reaction to stress.” Journaling can be an “effective stress management tool” for your stressors. Your hands are overflowing with little and large worries, spilling out all over the place so that you trip over them each time you try to walk forward. You can’t keep them contained in your grasp any longer. You need a receptacle to put them in until you can properly sort through them at your own pace and time. That, dear friend, is what worry journaling does. But you’re saying, ‘I can’t write everything down,’ or ‘I hate to write; it sounds like another school assignment.’ Do not add to the stressors already brewing beneath your surface. Here are some tricks to tackle a worry journal.
Sketch, draw, or paint a picture each day
Bullet journal a few key phrases
One sentence a day or even one word a day
The key to building this scaffolding upon your new foundation is healing. So, if you don’t remember anything else, remember this. There is no right or wrong way to do it, no specific time of day, and no rubric to follow— do not become overwhelmed with the details. And maybe the hardest one, at least for me, do not censor yourself. Remember, this is only for your eyes, no one else’s.
Research shows that after creating a new habit of worry journaling, people have seen improvement in lung and liver functions, blood pressure and mood, depressive symptoms, and overall well-being. Try it. Your body may actually thank you for it.