When a friend suggested I try bullet journaling as a means of managing anxiety, it was all I could do not to pack up my things and leave the table.
It was the fall of my sophomore year of college. In the month prior, I had switched majors, ended a (relatively) long-term relationship, moved out on my own, and was feeling pretty uncertain about almost everything in my life. That uncertainty mutated into an incessant, nagging worry. And that worry, left unattended, erupted into fear. Full-blown, nonstop fear of the world around me.
Each thought that manifested in my head was attached to a warning, a what-if, an alarm sounding to tell me that I was constantly on the edge of some irredeemable mistake. That I would ruin the rest of my life with a single misstep. That something was wrong — at all times — even if I had no idea what it might be.
Obviously I was in a rut. But instead of sitting in that rut, waiting for something to change, my anxiety was actively and aggressively digging me deeper and deeper into the pit.
Instead of taking action on the fears of change and adjustment and potential failure, I had become paralyzed. Stuck.
On a dewy morning in August, one of the early days of my sophomore fall semester, I sat in a coffee shop with a friend before class. We talked about our summers and as she rattled off party after concert after festival that she had attended, the FOMO came knocking at my mental door. I was frustrated with myself for spending so long isolated in my apartment, alone with my fear, while my friends lived their best lives and I just couldn’t figure out how.
I told her how I had been feeling. How I felt like I was always two steps behind, like every time I turned around I had forgotten a deadline or missed a memo. Like I was suffocating, smothering myself under the weight of the world and no matter what I did, I couldn’t claw my way out to the other side.
And at the end of it all, she said:
‘Have you tried bullet journaling?’
And at first I was angry. Like, really angry.
Bullet journaling?! That cutesy-hand-lettering, sticky-note covered trend that flooded my Pinterest feed every day? How could doodling my to-do list in a journal be the thing that pulls me back on my feet, especially when I’d already felt so far gone?
I composed myself and asked her what she meant.
She pulled her own bullet journal from her backpack and flipped through the pages, showing me charts and tables and trackers and agendas, all neatly organized and decorated. It was her style — artsy, earth-toned, not the screaming-highlighter-yellow I saw in the journals online. I was intrigued.
She told me she kept track of her agenda in her journal, but she also recorded her moods, any recurring dreams or thoughts, the habits she practiced — the little things of her day that I wouldn’t have considered keeping track of.
And over time, she began to understand herself.
When I skimmed her journal, something activated in my mind. A creative muscle that was aching to be flexed. A glimmer of light that wanted to shine, even if dim. I wanted to try.
After class that day, I searched online for the perfect journal — the thing that I would make my survival guide. I began creating a list of the things I wanted to change, and researching ways to document them in my journal. And when the journal arrived, I got to work.
What did I have to lose?
Bullet journaling is a fantastic resource for planning, keeping track of tasks, and giving a home to the thoughts and ideas you have throughout the day. But it can also be a tool for healing. A tool for self-discovery. A tool for strengthening your creativity and keeping your mindset in check.
If you want to beat your anxiety and start your bullet journal journey, I recommend starting out with these tips.
Bullet Journaling Tips for Battling Anxiety
Record your mood
Perhaps one of the greatest things about bullet journaling is the ease with which you can record daily changes — especially the ones that you may not take note of otherwise. Noticing the shifts in your mood throughout the day is a key step in tackling the thing at the root of your anxiety.
Create a system you can use to track your mood every day (I fill mine in at the end of each day before bed). Reflect on your overall headspace and emotions from the day and assign yourself a word, a color, or whatever you use to differentiate. I assign each mood a color, and fill in the square for that day with that color.
The nuance you choose to include here is up to you. For some, recording one color for one mood for the entire day may not feel like enough information to know what’s really going on.
If you’re just beginning your bullet journaling journey, I recommend getting as detailed as you can at first, then refining your process over time. Another option for mood tracking is to leave yourself some space in each day’s section to journal. Here, you can include some specific feelings you had during the day along with your overall mood. Write down if you had any major mood swings or if your mood was more extreme than usual. Doing this allowed me to see when my moods tended to be better or worse, and from there I could assess what went on in those times that might need to be addressed.
Use habit trackers
This is a great resource to pair up with your daily mood record so you can begin to see how your habits influence your mindset. The little things add up, and we tend to miss the pushes and pulls in our day that are quietly contributing to our moods.
Make a list of the habits you currently practice (that you want to continue), and include habits you would like to create. Give yourself boxes to check for each day of the week, and record if you practiced that habit or not. These can be things like exercise, yoga, journaling, or even taking a shower and making the bed. From tracking my habits, I noticed that on the days I practiced yoga in the morning, I tended to feel a little better throughout the day. Make those connections for yourself, and prioritize the things that benefit your mental health.
Assess where you are in your journey, and start with baby steps if you need to. If you’re struggling to just get up and get dressed for the day, adding a 3 mile run to your weekly checklist doesn’t sound like the most feasible change. Be honest with yourself, and accept your position in your journey. Focus on making progress instead of shaming yourself for shortcomings.
Pro tip: celebrate your wins! If you make a goal to journal every day this week, treat yourself when you achieve it. Order a new set of stationary or have a self-care night! Remind yourself that you and the progress you make are worthy of acknowledgment and celebration.
Reflect on gratitude
The opposite of fear is gratitude.
Make a daily list (or journal for a page or two) of the things you’re grateful for. Reflect on them. Take a moment to think about each thing, what it means to you, why you put it on the list. No matter how small something may be, thank the universe for allowing you to experience it.
When I learned to combat fear with gratitude, I began to build a foundation that keeps anxiety from shaking us. Instead of stressing over an upcoming interview or an important meeting, running through the what-ifs and the potential crises, I remind myself to be grateful for the opportunity, no matter how it plays out. I remind myself to be thankful for the experience, as it will build my confidence and create new connections. I remind myself that I am in control, and I have been given this moment as a gift.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, return to gratitude and write it down.
Make It Your Own
The true beauty of the bullet journal lies in the fact that you truly can make it your own. There are plenty of examples out there for what your bullet journal could look like, but it’s ultimately up to you. Your journal is your space for growth, for healing, and for peace. It’s your space to explore your creativity and get in touch with the way your mind works. Make it beautiful.
Experiment and discover what works best for you in your journaling practice. Truthfully, bullet journaling is not the end-all be-all cure to mental health issues. But it’s a wonderful first step in the right direction, as it allows you to be present. To be mindful. To be accepting of yourself and your thoughts.
After all, peace starts within.
Sometimes we just need a little help finding it.
If you’re struggling with anxiety, check out these resources from the ADAA.