How I used a journal to combat anxiety attacks
I used to say that if I was a house, my anxiety would have a room all to itself. Most likely an uninviting storage room, filled with useless things that I don’t want and, frankly, would rather donate to those who call themselves my enemies; a broken mirror showing me a reflection that I hate, an empty piggy-bank threatening a future in which I can’t support myself, a boarded up window keeping out all the light.
The anxiety is within me, unextractable, like some inoperable growth that I was born with but never really meant to have. It accompanies me faithfully in everything I do and it flares up, irritated, whenever it so chooses.
But in 2013, I developed my own personal remedy for these flares. I know I’ll probably never be able to remove the source, but I can fight the symptoms with everything I’ve got.
Strangely, at that point, I was happier than I had been in years. I had overcome the depression that ensued after my two-time dropout experience and I was thrilled to finally begin my studies in Creative Writing. For the first time in a long time, I fit. I belonged there. The anxiety room grew dusty, lying dormant as I became more myself than I had ever been before.
And then, the reality of completing a one-year course came harshly into focus. I was finally happy; I had finally found my place; I finally felt as though I could achieve something… but it would all be over soon. The days were numbered and the number was small, shrinking all the time.
Thankfully the depression didn’t manage to sink its sharp edges back into me, but instead I was pierced deeply and thoroughly by depression’s protégé, anxiety. I’d had anxiety attacks before and had come to recognise them as waking nightmares; horrific but infrequent and with abrupt endings, after which life would go on as usual. A brief stroll through hell, if you will. That year, though, the attacks really gained some momentum.
The first one hit in the college canteen. It was big and messy and unexpected. The canteen was cleared, the nurse was called… the canteen staff gave me free tea which was loaded with about ten sugars, a pitiful consolation prize. The second one hit as I sat outside one of the classrooms waiting for our lecturer to arrive, and after that they all blur together. My mental log was no match for their persistence and frequency. I didn’t need the exact numbers and stats to know that my anxiety was absolutely battering me.
That was when I began what would become known as my Positive Thoughts Book.
I didn’t know what I was doing at first; I had no set plans for the pocket-sized polka-dot notebook that had been sitting, blank, in my bedroom since my September birthday. I just started writing.
The first page became a letter of complaint directed at one of our most universally-loathed lecturers. Once the letter was written I lit up a cigarette which I had stolen from a friend (a playful attempt to protect his lungs) and I burned the page, one cigarette-stain at a time. The idea was that I would let go of all that negativity with the destruction of the letter. My new coping method was developing.
Overnight, the purpose of the book had evolved. The next day my friends were all taking turns to fill up its pages with kind messages and promises of lasting friendship. So, suddenly, the book was no longer about expelling negativity; it was about recording moments of positivity.
I began to carry it with me everywhere, always ready to record a happy thought, a witty observation or an inside joke, and before long the pages were brimming with funny memories, diary entries, doodles, games, autographs from local musicians and inspirational quotes, each and every page laced with positive associations.
And the key here is that I didn’t look at any of the entries from my loved ones until a moment of panic started to arise. I kept those little nuggets of joy safe for the moment when I would need them most… and this was the single most effective part of my new anxiety-thwarting efforts.
In keeping the book on my person at all times, I was also constantly armed for the moments when my panic would attempt to launch a sneak attack. The book had become a piece of evidence attesting to every wonderful part of my life, and every single happy moment that I collected acted as a weapon in my recurring battle with anxiety.
This was my investment in my mental health; a little message from me at my best to me at my worst; a message to say “Hey, look at all this good stuff that’s happened so far. Imagine what’s left to come if you just keep going.”
Sometimes it can be hard to believe someone when they tell you that you’re fine and that things will get better. After all, how the hell would they know? But I can trust myself. So the message, this book, holds a lot of weight in those just-want-to-run-away-and-hide moments. It’s what kept me going.
My Positive Thoughts Book (sometimes referred to as a ‘Cheer Up Book’), inevitably became filled to capacity and my little self-sustaining project came to an end. It’s still one of my most precious possessions, but I know it by heart now and the magic, while still there, is admittedly almost a decade old.
By pure coincidence, my sister bought me a beautiful journal for my recent birthday, with each page beautifully distinguished from the next, with all sorts of pastel colours and nature scenes filling the book to the brim with prettiness. I think it’s time to resurrect my old positivity-investment method with new messages and memories.
The anxiety may be within me, unextractable, but I have learned that it is not uncontrollable.
To anyone out there with their own roomful’s worth of anxiety, anyone looking to exorcise their panic, I encourage you to explore this method of logging your best moments. Maybe not in a book; maybe in videos or photographs or drawings, maybe as lyrics to a song, maybe as post-it notes scattered around your room. Whatever works for you, I encourage you to find it and use it to your advantage. These thoughts will become your allies and your weapons.
So arm yourself. And when anxiety attacks, fight back.