Studies show that journaling for health anxiety can help us worry less.
When I was in university, I kept a diary tucked beside my bed. It was a safe place to process my experiences and dream about the future. It was great to get all those thoughts out on paper. My heart felt a little lighter after each entry.
As an adult, I found myself busy with work and then family. Finding time to write was no longer a priority. But keeping a diary isn’t just for teens. Thanks to the recent popularity of bullet journaling, more people are giving this ages-old tradition a try. In coping with the stress of juggling work, family, and self-care, writing can be one of the best resources we have to work through our feelings and keep ourselves balanced. For those of us who struggle with health worries, studies show that journaling for health anxiety can be an amazing tool to help bring some much-needed perspective.
The Benefits of Journaling for Health Anxiety
As Dr. Markway of Psychology Today proclaims, “There’s simply no better way to learn about your thought processes than to write them down.” Keeping a journal has been shown to help people with depression, grief, process traumatic events, lower stress, decrease anxiety and even improve our immune system.
In particular, a study by Kerstner et. al. found that keeping an electronic diary could reduce health anxiety. Participants completed a structured writing exercise 9 times a day for 2 weeks. Each entry took about 3 minutes to complete. They started by evaluating their mood on a given scale. Second, they performed a short “mental body scan” and then recorded their findings on a health questionnaire of 11 predetermined symptoms. Next, they wrote down any external or psychological causes that could explain their perceived symptoms. Lastly, they finished each entry by rating the severity of their health anxiety. Both the control group and writing group attended 4 psychotherapy sessions.
At the end of the program, those in the writing group reported significantly less health anxiety. The researchers also found it improved “cognitive bias” – our tendency to selectively pay attention to health symptoms and catastrophize (assume the worst-case scenario) bodily sensations.
How to Start Journaling for Health Anxiety
Beginning a new journaling practice can be daunting – especially when I’m looking down at that blank page and haven’t a clue what to write. If you would like to give journaling a try, here are some lessons I’ve learned:
1. Choose the best format for you
It could be a traditional leather-bound journal, a soft cover illustrated diary, something cheap and cheerful from the dollar store, an online journal program or an app on your tablet. If you choose a bullet journal, there are entire Instagram pages and Pinterest boards full of template ideas to motivate you.
2. Find a quiet place to write
With two busy children running around my house, this isn’t always easy. I find getting up a little early, before the kids wake up, works best. It also allows me some time to work through all those anxious thoughts that popped up overnight. Creating a plan for how to deal with these worries helps me start my day fresh and in a more positive frame of mind.
3. Consider keeping your journal private
My journal is a safe place to work through my thoughts and feelings. I find it’s easier to be fully transparent about my concerns if I know my journal is for “my eyes only.” I don’t need to worry about other people’s opinions or scrutiny. This being said, it’s a tool that I share with my doctor when seeking professional health advice.
4. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar
It can be hard to let go and just freely write. But don’t get stuck worrying about spelling or grammar. Our journal is a tool to reflect on our experiences; not to win any “best writer” awards.
I Write for H.E.A.L.T.H
H – Health Concern:
I begin each entry by identifying my health concern. What body sensation or symptom am I worried about? What are the potential causes and/or diagnosis that I am anticipating?
E – Emotions:
When I think about this health concern, how do I feel (i.e. scared, nervous, angry, sad) and why?
A – Assumptions:
What assumptions might I be making? For instance, I might assume that “all new sensations I experience are a sign of a serious medical condition,” or “if my doctor doesn’t order a test, she can’t be sure of her diagnosis.”
L – Likelihood:
What evidence supports my health concern? Is there evidence that counters it? What are the most likely explanations for my symptoms? (If seeking health information online, I’m cautious to use only reputable medical websites.)
T – Triggers:
What external triggers may be contributing to my health anxiety? Did I hear a health story in the news? Have I recently been in contact with someone suffering from an illness? Did I hear about someone being diagnosed with a serious medical condition? Am I waiting for a medical test?
H – Help:
After re-reading my entry I decide what actions I will take to help my health anxiety. For example, “if my symptoms persist for ‘x’ amount of time I will book an appointment with my doctor”; “I will seek guidance from a therapist”; “I will learn more about mindfulness meditation”; and “I will start journaling for health anxiety.”
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If you’re working with a psychotherapist, he or she may give you instructions on how to structure your journal to complement your therapy sessions. As always, please consult a qualified health-care professional if you have any concerns about your mental or physical health.
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I’m not an expert. If you have any concerns about your health, you should always consult your doctor or other qualified health-care provider and don’t disregard or delay seeking professional medical or mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment because of anything you read on this site. Wishing you well.
Baikie, K., & Wilhelm, K. (2005). Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 11(5), 338-346.
Esterling, B. A., L’Abate, L., Murray, E. J., & Pennebaker, J. (1999). Empirical foundations for writing in prevention and psychotherapy: Mental and physical health outcomes. Clinical Psychology Review, 19(1), 79-96.
Kerstner, T., Witthöft, M., Mier, D., Diener, C., Rist, F., & Bailer, J. (2015). A diary-based modification of symptom attributions in pathological health anxiety: Effects on symptom report and cognitive biases. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 83(3), 578-589.
Markway, Barbara. “How to Keep a Thought Diary to Combat Anxiety.” Psychology Today, April 13, 2014.