3 Morning Journaling Techniques I Use To Tackle Anxiety

I have kept a daily journal for nearly 14 years now. Most of what I write in my notebooks is unstructured, incoherent ranting and whining. Late night outpourings of fear and anxiety. Weird, grandiose plans for the future. Uncomfortable detailed accounts of social interactions, complete with a commentary on why I should never go near a human being again.

My notebooks aren't as much about documenting my life as about managing emotions and making plans. I'm not joking when I say that it is the main thing which keeps me sane during bad times. The time and effort I put into journaling directly correlate to how happy, calm and productive I am. 

It can be intimidating to read the journals of successful people (like Samuel Pepys, Hemmingway, and Benjamin Franklin) and about complex methods for keeping a record of your life.  Like all habits, the simpler you make it, the better. I prefer to have a barrage of quick and easy journaling techniques for specific situations. The criteria for each of them are as follows:

  • Must take under five minutes to do (or longer if I wish.)
  • Must require nothing more than paper and pen.
  • Must be something I can do anywhere, anytime. 
  • Must have tangible, immediate benefits.

My staple notebook is the Moleskine Cahier- it's light, the paper is good quality, and it's sturdy. The only pen I will ever use is a Lamy Safari with a medium nib (indestructible and it makes my handwriting 10x better.) 

Here are the three main techniques I use all the time for handling anxiety and general mood repair.

1. Concrete solutions

I have written about this basic, yet powerful technique before. It's simple and I use it all the time. A lot of people got in touch to say it worked for them too, so I'm sharing it again. 

First, divide the page in two. On one side, write down everything which is on your mind as a sort of idea capture. Get it all down as quickly as possible.  I like to state it in the plainest terms possible as if explaining it to someone with no understanding of my situation. Each bullet point goes something like 'I feel X because of Y and Z' or 'A is wrong and that is making me feel B and C.'  It does not need to be any more complicated than that. If you feel like ranting or going into a lot of details, turn that into a separate journal entry. This page is all about creating an inventory of your current problems, no matter how big or small each one is. This stage is to let you articulate your exact situation. It's  common to be anxious without any real idea of what is causing it, which is why I find this stage so cathartic. 

On the other side of the page, write an equally simple list of potential solutions for each problem. Again, keep each point short and broad. I find that some of the issues become meaningless as soon as they are on paper. A few lines of self-reassurance is enough to solve them. Sometimes all I have to write is 'this is bullshit. I am doing fine. Forget this point and move on.' In fact, you would not believe how often that is the real answer.  For others, I write down an idea for a more thorough resolution. 

This next part is optional, although usually necessary. Once the first page is full, take another to write a detailed, step by step plan for each of the biggest problems. This part is what makes this technique practical, not just satisfying. Writing down problems does not eradicate them. There are always ways to solve (or at least reduce or handle) them. 

Anxiety can leave us feeling helpless. When I get overwhelmed, I easily fall into a downwards spiral and start thinking there is nothing I can do to improve things. That's almost never true. There are always steps we can take to solve problems and start feeling better. 

Although I haven't shown filled in examples in the video, here's a page from January:

2. Seven questions

I start almost every day by answering these seven questions in a notebook. I aim to write at least three points for each one. Giving myself prompts makes the process of getting started frictionless. There are lots of notebooks available with prompts included, but they never work for me - I need the freedom to adjust the questions, write as much or as little as I like and adapt over time. I won't show a filled in version of this (or the next technique) as it's a bit too personal. Again, my day is far more likely to be bad if I forget to do this. 

  • What am I grateful for? Yes, gratitude is cheesy. But a barrage of studies have shown that listing even 3 things we are grateful for each day can make us happier and calmer. A friend and I used to get in touch and list what we were grateful for each night, a practice which I found made me feel measurably happier. I've kept that going myself since then. 

  • What have I done to look after myself in the last 24 hours? This is an area I struggle with, which is why I always include it. If I can't think of at least three points (even if they are as small as getting enough sleep, going for a walk or calling someone) it's a bad sign.

  • What will I do to look after myself today? This builds on the previous question - if I don't make a plan, it won't happen. Again, doesn't need to be anything dramatic.

  • What do I want to get done today? This is where I identify the three biggest things I need to get done each day. A lengthy to do list is counterproductive for me. Recognising the three highest leverage tasks I need to complete helps me to stay focused and not get overwhelmed.

  • What have I been putting off? The Ziegarnik effect states that uncompleted or interrupted tasks drain our mental energy. Acknowledging what I have been avoiding helps me to face up to potential sources of anxiety, and to make a plan for getting it done.

  • What am I anxious about? Any more than a couple of points for this one is a sign I need to switch to technique #1. 

  • What are my future plans/ideas?  For some reason, I often wake up with vague ideas and I like to capture them. Once in a while, something from this list proves to be a good idea. 

3. Fishbone diagram

This is a great one for times when you feel crappy but isn't sure why. Fishbone diagrams are used in manufacturing and product design to figure the causes of big problems. When I first read about the idea a while back, I immediately recognised it had other applications and started using it myself.

  • Draw a triangle (the head of the fish) and label it with whatever you are feeling/whatever problem you are trying to solve.

  • Draw the 'spine' with six 'bones' coming out of it. Label these with the key areas which could be contributing

  • Add other lines coming off the 'bones' and label them with anything problematic for that area. Once complete, it should look like a fish skeleton (hence the name.) Don't expect it to be symmetrical or to look like a work of art. It can be helpful to ask other people for input on this part. 

There are a lot of potential uses for this one. If I'm worried about my finances, I might use it to find costs I could cut in different areas of my life. If I'm not spending enough time around people, I look for ways I could incorporate socialising into my schedule. If I'm behaving in an illogical way (such as snapping at people for no reason) I use this to try to figure out why.