How to Keep a Worry Journal
I started my worry journal 5 years ago right around the time I was stressing over two life-altering experiences that would have been stressful enough on their own – producing my first play and dating again after a break-up. I worried that I sucked in both arenas and on pretty much every level. I barely managed to keep my shit together but keeping a thought record, or “worry journal,” kept it from turning into a total shit show.
When it feels like you’re worrying 24/7, keeping a record of your worries may seem unnecessary and even counterproductive:
“I know what my worries are. Won’t writing them down just make them worse?”
No. As I discovered, most of the worries I have throughout the day are repetitive. Once I put a worry through the ringer, it loses a lot of its power. Yes, the worry often comes back, but when it does it’s a little less horrible. Considering what we know about women and anxiety, the better we are able to manage our worries and minimize negative self-focus, the better. A worry journal can help you do a pretty good job of that.
Keeping a record of negative thoughts
The gist of it is this – write down your worries and analyze the hell out of them.
1) Choose your journaling medium
For the worry journal exercises I share here, I just type it all out on the computer. You can certainly do that, but there’s something nice about handwriting in a notebook that you can personalize. Using Notes in your phone works, too.
2) Keep a list
You can add to it throughout the day as the worries come. Or you can schedule worry time and write your worries down then. Try to pick the same time every day, including the length of time you’ll spend on it. I think I started at 15 minutes, but some days found myself twiddling my thumbs after just 5 (a welcome surprise).
3) Analyze your worries
Not all of them (unless you have the time and inclination), but definitely the loudest, most persistent ones. Here’s how my therapist taught me. Look at:
- The situation. What triggered the worry, or negative thought? Be as specific as you can about where you were, what you were doing, and who you were with when you had the negative thought. Even if what you were doing seems inconsequential, like “I was sitting on the porch sipping hot tea,” write it down.
- Anxiety level. How high is it on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being the highest)?
- Worry/negative thought (also known as hot thoughts, automatic negative thoughts, or anxious thoughts). What are you worried about? Something work related? Love related? Something in the news? If it can be expressed in one sentence great, but feel free to write as much as you need to get it all out.
- Evidence for. What proof do you have that this worry or negative thought is true? Did something happen in the past that supports the likelihood of it being true now?
- Evidence against. What proof do you have that this worry or negative thought is not true? Did something happen in the past that casts doubt on the likelihood of it being true now?
- Alternative thought. Weighing the evidence for and against, what’s the most likely truth? (Though not expressed as such in the sample entry below, these days I like stating the alternative thought as a positive affirmation.)
- Anxiety level. Now that you’ve completed the journal entry, what is your anxiety level on a scale of 1 to 10?
Why this helps
Thought records are tools used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
The best definition I’ve found for CBT is from Merriam-Webster:
A type of psychotherapy that combines cognitive therapy and behavioral therapy by identifying faulty or maladaptive patterns of thinking, emotional response, or behavior and substituting them with desirable patterns of thinking, emotional response, or behavior.
When I’m caught in a worry spiral, I work myself into a frenzy obsessing over a worst-case scenario that increasingly feels real.
When I put that worry into a thought record, I’m able to take a step back and start seeing that worry for what it really is – just a thought, not the truth.
One of my first worry journal entries
In November 2011, my dating anxiety was at its height. Here’s one of my worry journal entries about one particularly worrisome fella.
Situation / Trigger
Thinking about Mr. X, wondering if and when he will call.
Worry / Negative Thought
What if he doesn’t call? Of course he is going to call. But what if he doesn’t call soon enough? What is soon enough? My definition of it? Should I call or text him? No. It’s his turn. He will limit contact so as not to lead me into a routine. Limiting contact/seeing me so I don’t get too serious. I have initiated the past two dates. Maybe it’s his turn. He only saw me because I asked and not because he really wanted to.
He doesn’t call in between our dates – only to make the dates.
He likes me. I know this. [In hindsight, this isn’t the most convincing argument but I believed it and it made me feel better; job done.]
I know he has a great time with me and he has talked about future dates – going to dinner, seeing movies, etc. There is no reason he would not call. I believe this 99 percent.
What to expect
In my experience, by the time I get through a worry journal exercise, my anxiety level is lower than when I started.
Other ways to keep a worry journal
1) Add a couple of categories to the format outlined above:
Feelings. How did the worry or negative thought make you feel? Anxious, stressed, disappointed, frustrated, hopeless, defeated, overwhelmed, edgy, afraid, resentful? Describe physical feelings as well, like sweating, trouble breathing, tightness in your diaphragm or chest.
Behavior. How did you respond to the worry or negative thought? Did you have an imaginary conversation with someone? Did you send an email you regret? Did you binge on a 4-hour Kardashians marathon (yes, I’m talking to me)? Did you journal, meditate, practice deep breathing, take a walk?
2) Break your worry journal into two columns
Use the left column for the worry and the right column for the action you could take to address it.
3) Forget format and just start writing
Sometimes that’s all I can do, is just spill it out all over the page. I then might do a formal worry journal exercise afterward or at a later time if it’s still on my mind.
Write it down
You might be tempted to work through a thought record in your head. Please, write it down.
Sure, you may be able to shorthand things once you’re practiced at the process, but it’s no way to start. As a writer, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought I’ve written a masterpiece in my head only to discover upon writing it down that it’s a lot less developed than I thought.
Bottom line, expressing yourself in writing forces you to flesh things out more fully than you ever will in your head.
Give it a go
If not now, then the next time you find yourself caught in a worry spiral. Your anxiety isn’t going to want that – for you to stop mid-worry marathon – but every time I manage to tear myself away from the madness and record a thought record, I feel better for it. I hope you do, too.
This information is not intended to serve as, or replace, professional help for an anxiety disorder. Go to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America to find a therapist or support group in your area.