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Do you worry a lot? Sometimes over things you absolutely can't control, so that worrying about them serves no practical purpose? Do you think you worry too much? Do you worry that all this worrying may not be good for you?
Most of us do at least some of this kind of worrying at least some of the time, and maybe more than we used to. We live in a worrisome age. But, a study shows, there's something you can do that will help you worry less and become more emotionally resilient. Anyone can do it, it doesn't take much time, and there's no cost at all: Write down what you're worrying about.
That might seem absurdly simple, but it turns out to be extremely powerful as well. Keeping a "worry journal" is an element of cognitive behavior therapy, or CBT, which has long been known to help with a great many emotional disorders. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University, in State College decided to see whether worry journaling alone could help subjects improve their emotional balance. To find out, they recruited 51 patients with generalized anxiety disorder, which is notoriously tough to treat. Subjects were randomly selected to either keep a worry journal for 10 days, or else a "thought journal" in which they simply recorded their thoughts. Participants were prompted by text messages to write in their journals at random times throughout the day.
Ten days isn't a long time to address ongoing anxiety, but nevertheless, at the end of the 10-day experiment, those with worry journals were asked to review their worries and see how many had come true. (Most hadn't.) That brief intervention was enough to significantly reduce anxiety levels in the people who wrote down their worries, as compared with those who simply wrote down their thoughts. And 30 days later the worry journal group was still doing better than the control group.
Even before this latest research, there's been mounting evidence that keeping a journal provides a host of emotional and health benefits, and also boosts creativity. This new study suggests that focusing your journal writing on whatever you're worried or upset about can meaningfully increase those benefits. If you're ready to give it a try (whether or not you're already a journal writer) here are some suggestions for getting started:
1. Make journaling part of your regular response to stress.
Let's say you've just lost your biggest customer, or had an argument with an employee. You walk into your office and shut the door, feeling upset, frightened, and not in control of your emotions. The first thing you should do is sit and focus on your breathing for a few moments, which in itself will help you regain some emotional balance. Then turn to your journal. Write down what you're upset about, what you're worried about, your biggest problems and your biggest fears. Be honest—no one else will ever read this journal unless you want them to.
2. Write when you want to.
Many experts suggest taking time to write in your journal every day. That's probably good advice, but as a lifelong journal writer, I find that some days I don't have time, and other days I do have time but don't feel like I have anything new to say. At moments of worry or upset, though, I have plenty to say and I might as well take the time because I won't be able to do much else until I do. Follow your own emotional prompts and try writing in your journal when your worried or scared or angry. Chances are it will feel like something you really want to do.
3. Use the medium that most appeals to you.
Some experts recommend writing by hand. And indeed, although I write nearly everything else on a computer or tablet, I do write by hand in my journal, with a fountain pen I've had for more than 30 years—because I love the way it glides across the page. Choose the medium, whether paper or electronic, that feels most enjoyable to you. If you're new to journaling, it's probably worth experimenting with a few different ways of doing it to see which you like best. And it's fine to change from one to the other later on, or even switch them around according to your situation or mood.
4. Let it rip.
Go ahead and dump out your problems, frustrations, and most worrisome concerns on the page. Keep going until you feel like you've written down everything you have to say. If you're anything like me, two things will happen. First, as you write down your frustrations and fears, you will gradually become calmer and less upset. And second, you may start finding solutions. As you lay out your problem on the page, it will become more and more clear what you need to do about it. This may be because the act of writing simultaneously engages your more focused left brain and frees your more wide-ranging right brain to examine the situation from many different angles. I'm not entirely certain why this works, but it nearly always does for me. If you give it a try, let me know if it works for you.