Reduce Anxiety through Stream of Consciousness Writing
What a nightmare. There are a million things whirling around in my brain, and my thoughts keep cycling over and over again. There are so many things I want to accomplish; so many ways I want to grow. But I feel trapped in my own what ifs and ultimately I am stagnated in my inaction.
Photo by Hannah Olinger
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Primer on anxiety: anxiety is a typical human experience, but not all anxiety is typical
According to epidemiological surveys (studies on how many people are affected by disease and how disease occurs in these populations), one in three people will be affected by an anxiety disorder during their lifetime (1). However, if you are a human being, you will experience anxiety, even if you may not experience it on a level that constitutes an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety, in milder intensity, is a completely typical human experience. It is simply defined as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome” (2). It can be beneficial in some cases because it can warn us about danger or it can be a source of motivation.
Anxiety can manifest itself in our oh so familiar cops in the head – the “what if” thoughts that hold us back from manifesting our desires in the real world. Typical levels of anxiety can hit us everywhere we go – before a job interview, an exam, a presentation, or asking an attractive person out for a coffee.
An individual with an anxiety disorder will experience higher levels of unhelpful, ineffective anxiety that may sometimes come unexpectedly (3). This level of anxiety significantly impacts our lives and affects how we think, feel, and act (3).
Regardless of the intensity of your anxiety, stream of consciousness writing is beneficial!
One common intervention that is recommended for those of us with anxiety disorders is stream of consciousness writing (4). There are other names for this style of writing, including expressive writing and flow writing (4).
However, stream of consciousness writing is something that is beneficial not only for reducing anxiety disorder symptoms, but reducing anxiety in general. This means that anyone can see benefits from working this habit into our lives!
Stream of consciousness? What’s that?
Distilled to the simplest terms, it is writing your deepest thoughts freely with no restraint or mental barriers. In stream of consciousness writing, you let your mind do the talking, and your dominant hand do the scribing. Whatever your mind says, you write. And you do this for two or three pages (I don’t ascribe to that rule all the time, but that is usually what is recommended).
You can write about how you have nothing to write. You can write about how you feel about writing. You can write about your dog, your parrot, your sister, your dad, how you need to do the laundry, or some guy in traffic that cut you off. Anything goes.
Why does stream of consciousness writing help?
1. Stream of consciousness writing can help you perform your anxiety-provoking task more efficiently.
According to a recent study led by Hans Schroder, an MSU doctoral student in psychology and a clinical intern at Harvard Medical School’s McLean Hospital, expressive writing for 8 minutes about how you feel about an upcoming anxiety-provoking task helps individuals perform the task more efficiently (4).
Schroder proposes that this effect is a result of being able to clear up the cognitive resources used for worrying, and use them toward the actual task (5). By writing about your deepest anxieties and emotions in your mind, you can bring them out of your head and into the physical world. You can then acknowledge/accept these thoughts and emotions, and let them go.
Even if you are not immediately about to enter an anxiety-provoking situation, building the habit of stream of consciousness writing on a daily basis (or twice daily – once in the morning and once at night) is still full of benefits.
2. Stream of consciousness writing can help you organize your thoughts when they are all over the place.
Writing out your thoughts, especially for those of us who suffer from high levels of anxiety, can help you keep your ducks a bit more in a row. Probably not completely in a row because that is not how minds work, but at least you can form a zigzag as opposed to a spiral.
When we keep our anxious thoughts in our mind, we are more likely to bounce between thoughts than to connect them and develop a plan of how to tackle them. There have been countless times when I opened up my morning pages notebook and wrote out very detailed to-do lists and plans by the end of my recommended two pages.
3. Stream of consciousness writing in the morning can help you let go of ineffective thoughts before they leak into your day.
“Morning pages” is a concept I picked up from the book “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron (6). Sometimes, I have days when I wake up in the morning and I immediately begin to ruminate about something I dreamt during the night, or something that happened yesterday. Or I wake up feeling groggy and unwell, and then search for any reason for why I am feeling this way – which can easily turn into a cognitive distortion called emotional reasoning.
Instead of allowing our minds to spiral first thing in the morning, Julia writes that it is more effective to get out some pages of paper (she recommends three) and start writing (6). Again, the practice is to write your thoughts freely, acknowledge/accept them, and then let them go.
By the end of your morning pages, you should feel more inspired and motivated to take on your daily challenges. Or at the very least, you will gain a better awareness of your present state of mind, body, and spirit. That’s a pretty good “very least” if you ask me!
4. Stream of consciousness writing can help you discover insights on where you can improve and grow.
Your entries will usually begin with more superficial comments, and that is okay. If we allow ourselves to continue writing whatever comes to mind, we can start unravelling our deeper insights.
For example, you may start out writing about how your egg salad sandwich tasted funny and it made you feel upset, but later on in your writing session you may uncover that what is actually bothering you is that you have been eating out more frequently and as a result, your food is going bad in your fridge.
This might lead to a further revelation that you haven’t been taking much time to yourself recently because work has gotten crazy, and not only are your fridge contents rotting, but your self-care has been thrown out the window. This can then lead you to write about how you might start rebalancing your life even with your busy schedule. You may even plan a little self-care date for yourself.
This is just one example (and by the way, it’s a true story).
5. Stream of consciousness writing at night can help you to designate parameters for worrying! It can be a way to combat nighttime rumination.
One reason how come it is recommended to keep your stream of consciousness writing to two pages (or any parameter that you set yourself) is because it can limit how much we can ruminate or worry. By setting out our two pages, we can see objectively how much space we have to spill our anxious thoughts. These become our designated physical space to do so.
In the book “When Panic Attacks” by Dr. David D. Burns, he describes a “paradoxical” technique for overcoming anxiety or depression called Worry Breaks (7). This is essentially a time everyday that you schedule to allow yourself to feel as worried and depressed as possible. It sounds terrible, and when I read it at first, I had to take a break to worry about Dr. Burns. But hear him out as he describes the experience of one of his patients (a doctor suffering from anxiety and depression):
When he was with his patients, he tried to focus on their concerns and medical problems rather than his own negative thoughts, since he knew he could dictate them into the tape recorder the moment he was done. At the end of rounds, he went to his office, rewound the tape, and forced himself to listen to all his self-criticisms. At first, this was upsetting, but after a few days, the negative thoughts began to sound ludicrous. Before long, they began to sound so silly that he no longer believed them at all. He experienced a substantial reduction in his anxiety and depression and an increase in his feelings of self-esteem.
This doctor chose to use a tape recorder, but writing your thoughts performs the same function. It is a designated time and a designated space with which you can worry freely, if worrying is what your mind wants to do at the time. You are not fighting your anxious thoughts – you are simply constricting your worry time so that you can keep them out of your mind for the rest of the day.
Stream of consciousness writing may not be effective in certain circumstances.
Something that is often missing from self-care posts is when the habits are not effective. First off, stream of consciousness writing is not going to be effective for everyone. If you try it and do not see any benefits after a week or two, then you do not need to force the habit. I said above that anyone can see benefits from stream of consciousness – but anyone does not mean everyone.
For myself, I try to avoid stream of consciousness writing when I am in the throes of a depressive episode. Stream of consciousness writing is most effective when you are otherwise able to perform daily tasks, because as mentioned, the writing becomes a designated and limited space to get your thoughts out. When I am feeling very low, I tend to write extremely ineffective things on paper that actually further perpetuate my instantaneous emotions and harmful thoughts.
When an individual is depressed, we are unable to participate in our typical daily schedules and sometimes we lose our sense of time. In these cases, there is no definite end to our thoughts, because we feel a deep sense of hopelessness (that nothing will improve). In this headspace, stream of consciousness writing may be much less progressive and more perpetuating in nature.
Bottom line: Be kind to yourself by acknowledging, accepting, and letting go of your thoughts and emotions.
Your thoughts and emotions are transient. Just as the clouds pass by, so too do your thoughts and emotions. The constant that we strive for with the imperfectionism lifestyle is how you treat yourself throughout the process.
We cannot overcome anxiety by diving straight into fighting against it. We need to work from a headspace of radical self-acceptance – we must first make the beast beautiful. We must accept ourselves with anxiety before we can work to reduce its negative impact on our lives.
Always remember to BKTY (be kind to yourself),
Books Mentioned in this Post:
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- Bandelow B, Michaelis S. Epidemiology of anxiety disorders in the 21st century. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2015;17(3):327–35.
- anxiety | Definition of anxiety in US English by Oxford Dictionaries [Internet]. Oxford Dictionaries | English. [cited 2018 Apr 28]. Available from: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/us/anxiety
- Anxiety Disorders [Internet]. CMHA National. [cited 2018 Apr 28]. Available from: https://cmha.ca/mental-health/understanding-mental-illness/anxiety-disorders
- Schroder HS, Moran TP, Moser JS. The effect of expressive writing on the error-related negativity among individuals with chronic worry. Psychophysiology. 2018;55(2):e12990.
- University MS. For worriers, expressive writing cools brain on stressful tasks [Internet]. MSUToday. [cited 2018 Apr 28]. Available from: http://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2017/for-worriers-expressive-writing-cools-brain-on-stressful-tasks/
- Cameron J. The artist’s way: a spiritual path to higher creativity. 10th anniversary ed. New York: J.P. Tarcher/Putnam; 2002. 237 p.
- Burns DD. When panic attacks: the new, drug-free anxiety therapy that can change your life. New York: Morgan Road Books; 2007.