Podcast: How journaling fights anxiety spirals


Podcast: Happier Digital Nomad – Journaling with Deren Temel – Ep. 18 

During the past five years, I’ve been tracking an all-consuming mental state I call, “Spiraling”. Spiraling is when negative thoughts bounce around my head and in a sense eat my brain, my energy, and my happiness. Usually, my spirals last a few minutes or at most an hour.

As a young man I got, what we all get, I got dumped and it sent me into daily spirals for months. Journaling turned my spirals into 40 pages of purposeful self-explorations. I want to give you some techniques to get through the initial pain of opening up to yourself and getting a grip on your emotional steering wheel.

For me when I’m writing to save myself from a spiral, I write it on paper and I throw it the fuck away. Most of my anxious thoughts aren’t worth keeping around. I don’t share this kind of writing, because it is impossible to be myself if I know other people would read it. 


Steps for journaling my way out of a spiral

Focus on the spiral’s process

A spiral has two parts, the topic, and the process. The topic is whatever you are upset about and the process is how the spiral is affecting you, when it started, what triggered it, how heavy it feels, how it is physically affecting you. You can’t tackle the topic while you are spinning, but you can get a handle on the spinning. By focusing your mental energy on how the spiral is making you feel, not what is making you upset.

When I was spiraling I would grab a notebook and write on the top, “I’m spiraling, I’ve been spiraling for five minutes. This spiral made it hard for me to work, and this has been the worse spiral of the week. It makes me angry and disappointed, my spiral started because I came home from work and I have nothing to do but spiral…” start by ignoring the topic and focus on the process of my spiral.

Write a million question

:  “Why did I take her for granted? Why did I become such a jerk, How did she fall out of love with me, why didn’t I notice all the warning signs, why was it only me trying to fix things?, Why can’t I just tell her”. Writing these questions gives you options for where to begin. I have calmed down spirals without ever writing anything other than a page of questions. The questions come easier than the answers, and they show you how many knots are tangled up in your heart.

Don’t think before you dive in

You aren’t writing for other people, you aren’t going to share it, no one is going to know that your handwriting looks beautiful and some-say “girly”, no one cares that you and I are dyslexic and can’t spell “intuition”, or that in 8th grade a doctor told you to read at the speed of a fifth grader, you are just writing to get it out of your head.

Just start

Pick one of the questions you laid out and just go for one of them. Whatever you write – isn’t going to solve anything. Writing will force you to organize your tangled thoughts into complete sentences into human language. It will force you to see, physically on that paper, the thing that is consuming you, it will turn your sharp broken thoughts into something close to human communication. It will give that spiraling a beginning, a middle, and an end. It will give your body a safe way to release the tension inside your mind.

Sometimes, when I am so worked up, I write in complete darkness. I sit at a desk, with a pen and paper, and I just start writing. I don’t waste energy on spelling, on the lines, or even on writing over my other words, I just get the thoughts out as complete sentences. Then I throw it away. It sounds like I am a mad man with incoherent notes all over my room, it is freeing to write in the dark and release yourself from worrying about proper writing and just focusing on getting the thoughts out in language.

You are done, when you are calm

 Keep writing until you calm, and then write encouraging things to yourself, give yourself a small goal for the rest of the day, and congratulate yourself for discovering the unpleasant parts of you, because at least you know about yourself much better than before and you might not do those things again.

Journaling is hard

 The journals can track your recovery or your decline, they can help you recognize your priorities and your fears. The journal is just a vehicle for your own exploration – which is painful. I tried to help a friend through a hard time with the same advice that I gave out today, they wrote an entry and then threw their journal at me. As I said, journaling isn’t going to solve anything, but it can give you a way to grasp what’s going on inside. 

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