What Is a Worry Diary?

A Worry Diary is a written record of the worries that enter your mind each day.

Worry Diaries are used globally by organizations including the British National Health Service (NHS) as a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) tool for treating conditions such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).

CBT acknowledges your thoughts, physical senses and actions are interlinked, and that persistent negative thoughts can trap you in a repeating vicious cycle, leading to increased anxiety.

Changing how you think about and respond to situations that cause anxiety or worry is a crucial part of CBT.

What is the science behind a Worry Diary?

In Preliminary exploration of worry: some characteristics and processes 1, researchers found that “worry relates closely to (the) fear process” and people who labeled themselves worriers found thinking, knowing, remembering, judging and problem-solving to be exponentially impaired when they were worrying.

left and right hemispheres of the brain

Elsewhere, Cognitive Behavioral Treatment for Generalized Anxiety Disorder 2 suggests that:

writing about worst fears in detailed and concrete terms allows clients to shift their perspective on their worries and move them to the back of their mind

Committing your worries to a diary helps you to reason about them, ultimately driving a measured response to the problem or situation underpinning the worry.

Worry Awareness Training where worriers “record aspects of their worry in a diary” is discussed in CBT for Worry and Generalized Anxiety Disorder 3. The authors explore how Worry Diaries aid identifying the “heart of the worry” and managing anxiety “to a level that does not disrupt a client’s day-to-day functioning.”

Changing how you cope with worry

Each time you start to worry an entry is made in your Worry Diary, summarising:

  • What you are worrying about
  • The type of worry:
    • A hypothetical worry (“what if I get cancer?”)
    • A practical worry (“the car is leaking oil”)
  • How intense the worry feels to you
  • What you did to re-focus your thinking away from the worry, for example - taking ten deep breaths

At roughly the same time each day, you spend a few minutes reading through the new entries in your Worry Diary – this is “worry time”.

a woman meditating by a lake

Habitual use of a Worry Diary changes how you think about and respond to worries three main ways:

  • Recording a worry in writing starts the process (both consciously and subconsciously) of calm, rational thinking about the problem or situation causing the worry
  • Setting aside time each day for Worry Time encourages a response behavior to worry where you push anxious, intense focus on the underlying problem or situation slightly into the future
  • Summarizing how you re-focus away from worry leads to further analysis of what works best for breaking cycles of intense worry

As an experienced Worry Diarist, you may find the vivid, debilitating worry you recorded at breakfast is far less stressful when your five minutes of Worry Time arrives later that day.

Using a Worry Diary can lead to significant improvements in how you handle worry and anxiety as:

  • Rather than descending into lengthy periods of worrying, you cut these short, re-focus and get on with your day
  • Logically reasoning about the source of your worry helps you to develop a balanced perspective and response to the underlying problem or situation
  • Understanding what effectively helps you re-focus away from worry helps prevent or minimize detailed worrying outside Worry Time
  • Condensing any acute worrying into Worry Time makes you calmer and more relaxed during the rest of the day

References

1. Borkovec, T.D., Robinson, E., Pruzinsky, T., DePree, J.A. (1983) Preliminary exploration of worry: Some characteristics and processes. Behaviour Research and Therapy. 21 (1), 9-16

2. Robichaud, M., Koerner, N., Dugas, M.D. (2019) Cognitive behavioral treatment for generalized anxiety disorder: from science to practice. 1st ed. New York: Routledge.

3. Wilkinson, A., Meares, K., Freeston, M. (2011) CBT for worry and generalised anxiety disorder. 1st ed. London: SAGE

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