Churchill on journaling and anxiety

Portrait of Winston Churchill as a young man by Edwin Arthur Ward. Source: Wikimedia Commons (public domain.)

I’ve written a few times about a journaling technique I use for managing anxiety. The full explanation is here, but the short one is that you write down everything you’re anxious about, then you write down how you would solve each problem in an ideal world.

You don’t put any pressure on yourself to solve anything straight away nor do you think of it as a to-do list. It’s simply an exploration of what you could do.

As it’s such a simple yet powerful idea, a lot of people use something similar. Interestingly, I learned from Anthony Storr’s Churchill’s Black Dogthat Winston Churchill did much the same during bouts of depression. This is how Churchill described it to Lord Moran, his personal doctor (as recorded by the latter in his diaries, which later formed the basis of a book):

“I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand back and if possible get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand at the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation. And yet I don’t want to go out of the world at all in such moments
It helps me to write down half a dozen things that are worrying me. Two of them, say, disappear, about two nothing can be done, so it’s no use worrying and two perhaps can be settled.”

Depending on how much you know about Churchill, that might be surprising. In England at least, he’s still held up as the ideal politician, the epitome of British stoicism, the great leader who unflinchingly carried the country on his shoulders. My grandfather had a painting of Churchill hung on his wall and always spoke respectfully of him. With time, he’s become a caricature of himself, a symbol rather than a person.

But the hard exterior of the British bulldog he came to be known as was as much a mask as Ziggy Stardust was for David Bowie. The real Churchill was prone to depression, which he concealed by drawing upon political success as a source of self-esteem and through other techniques such as painting. And, evidently, writing down his problems.

Perhaps that worked because it helped him separate his worries from his emotions. Presented with a political agenda, Churchill would no doubt have been able to spot the items which were irrelevant or impossible to solve. By externalising his anxieties, it seems he may have been able to take an objective perspective.

This is in sharp contrast to the typical way depression and anxiety make us react to problems: we get overwhelmed. We turn molehills into mountains. We feel hopeless and surrender to the irresolvable list of problems swirling around in our minds.

Yet that changes when you turn the fears into words on a page. Suddenly, as Churchill found, a few of them vanish. Others are immovable and therefore not worth worrying about. Others have a solution.

If you were to write down the six biggest issues on your mind right now, you’d probably get the same result. Try it.
Rosie Leizrowice