Anxious thoughts can tend to hook themselves onto us like sticky burrs, taking up valuable mental resources and headspace. The longer we allow these thoughts to hang around in the hope that they will just ‘go away’, the more they ‘snowball’, gaining in size and momentum and growing in intensity.
Human instinct often tells us to side-step facing our difficult thoughts and feelings head-on, which makes it all too easy to then become highly adept at avoidance tactics, even to the point of developing other annoying but distracting rituals such as OCD behaviours, retail therapy or disordered eating patterns.
In reality, the only way to confront problems is by facing them head-on because it is only by doing this that we eventually learn it is possible to find ways through our troubles. As a counsellor and writing for wellbeing practitioner I encourage my clients to write down their thoughts and feelings, including their worries, as a way of capturing them on paper in black and white.
Many report back that the process of taking up a pen and writing down what they are feeling causes them to slow down a little, which steadies the breathing, makes thinking a little bit clearer, and often opens up a bit of space for reflection – and that, in turn, can lead to new kinds of connections, a state of more positive thinking and an improved mood.
In The Little Book of Resilience – How to bounce back from adversity & lead a fulfilling life (published by Robinson), author Matthew Johnstone advocates taking up paper and pen and spending five to 10 minutes a day writing down all your worries on a sheet of paper. “Once the list is complete,” he says, “take a moment to quietly read it through then take small pleasure, with some ceremony, in destroying what you’ve written. Screw it up, rip it up, stamp on it or pop it on the BBQ.” (He is Australian…)
Johnstone’s theory is that this very physical act is a way of drawing a line under the fact that you have now faced and addressed what is bothering you in some way, and will now be freer to move on with your day.
Writing down your negative thoughts and feelings when you have them is not an instant solution to getting rid of them – but it does several things: it means that you are proactively taking control over something that you feel you have previously been at the mercy of; you are introducing a new and more positive, healthier ritual into your life, and hopefully, over time, writing out your worries will show you that much of what you dread is needless, because the worst-case scenarios you are stressing about never actually come to pass.
One of my clients realised that each time their fears were ramped up to level 10 on the worry dial, it was over something completely different. Regularly writing down their worries actually started to amuse them, because it was through this that they realised there was something new they were catastrophising about on each occasion.
A research study at the University of Chicago found that writing worries down appears to clear the mind and can actually improve consequent performance. Students who went on to sit an exam showed a 20 per cent improvement in results if they first jotted down their worries.
“These worries are taking up resources that should be dedicated to the task in hand. Putting pen to paper appears to offload these worries,” said the university’s Professor of Psychology, Sian Beilock.
Perhaps you could try making yourself smile by popping your worry list into your mouth and chewing on it – or maybe tearing it into tiny pieces and flushing it down the loo. Or, better still, why not fold it into a little boat and set it onto a stream – you can then watch your troubles actually float away.
Alternatively, keeping a record of your worries in a journal for a while and reading them back at a later date can allow you to see a pattern of unnecessary angsting, and over time, create new and healthier scripts that you relay to yourself – hopefully along the lines of ‘Why am I wasting so much energy worrying about things in my life that never actually happen?’.
Featured image: Getty/Cavan Images.