Writing to Relieve Anxiety

“I have now, and have had since this afternoon, a great yearning to write all my anxiety entirely out of me, write it into the depths of the paper just as it comes out of the depths of me, or write it down in such a way that I could draw what I had written into me completely.”

— Franz Kafka

Whenever something is bothering me, and I am overcome with running thoughts, the best way to relieve that anxiety is to write my thoughts down. Afterwards, I almost always feel better and the running thoughts subside. Simply writing about my fears and worries helps in easing them. Why is that?

Anxiety stays in your head for evolutionary reasons. It was important for the brain to remember anything that caused fear or anxiety, such as a tiger attack or snake bite, because without fearing those things, you’d be more likely to go near tigers and snakes and possibly die. As I wrote about before, social anxiety is another such fear adapted by evolution to help survival in a tribal hunter-gatherer society.

However, in the modern world you no longer need to keep all those fears in your head. You don’t live in the wild among tigers, snakes, and warring tribes. You live in a mostly safe environment—or at least not one where every time you step out of the house there’s a high probability you will be killed by a predator. Yet your brain still has those same evolutionary fears.

Key tools to help override that genetic programming are cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness meditation. If you learn to quiet your mind, ignore your inner chatter, and change the way you think to eliminate negative thought patterns, you will become calmer and less anxious. CBT and meditation help you become aware of your fears and why you’re feeling them. Even then, you may still feel anxiety—I still do even despite all the self work I’ve done—but you can better cope with it.

Journaling is another essential tool to combat anxiety. I can work out all my fears and worries on the page. This helps because, like I said, our brains are wired to keep fears and anxiety in our memory because we never know when the fear may come in handy. But by writing it down, you’re basically outsourcing that knowledge—telling your brain you don’t need to remember this anymore. It’s saved to memory in writing form on the paper. You don’t ever actually need to re-read what you wrote—it is the act of writing that matters. Get the bothersome thoughts out of your head and onto the page.

When you write about your fears and anxieties, you can then examine those thoughts from a detached view, as if the thoughts came from another person. Often you will realize those thoughts were absurd—there was no need for so much fear and anxiety over that matter. However, when those thoughts remain inside your head, unexamined, the fears and anxieties linger and grow stronger and more powerful.

This is why talk therapy is a common treatment for anxiety. That can work well for some people, but writing is like another form of talk therapy wherein your pen (or keyboard) is the therapist.

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