Controlling Anxiety Through Journaling – Part Three – How I Started And What I Learned

This is part three of a three-part series on Controlling Anxiety Through Journaling.

Part One
Part Two

In Part Two, I provided some example questions to get you started with journaling.
The questions are:

What is important to you?
What goals do you have?
What worries you?
What do you fear?
What causes you anxiety?
What do you want to do with your life?
What are you thankful for?
On what do you spend your time?
What are you doing now that gets in the way of accomplishing your goals?

Below are how I answer these questions and what I learned from them.

What is important to me?

Defining what’s important allows you to set priorities. It’s easy to get sidetracked, spend hours on the internet going down various rabbit holes (ahem, looking at you, Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, whatever political website you favor), then discover you’ve accomplished nothing all day. Just a wild guess, but I’m pretty sure arguing on the internet with complete strangers is not important, but you might not realize that until you sort out what your important list includes.

My important list includes:

My faith in God. I will freely admit, is not as strong as it should be. I am Christian most of the time. (I explain this more fully in “Been Dead, Never Been To Europe.”)

My family. I have an obligation to my wife to provide for her. I know myself well enough that if I can’t be a provider, I will see myself as worthless. I have an obligation to my wife and kids to be a decent husband and father. I quit drinking over a year ago, because I was failing at this part of my life badly. My wife and children deserve to have a husband and father who isn’t a mess.

My customers. As an IT consultant, I have an obligation to my customers, the people I work with and for. I am paid a decent wage to solve problems, to be dependable, and to provide value. I take that charge seriously.

My friends. They deserve me to be a decent human being who treats them with respect. They don’t need me to overburden them with my issues as they have their own. They need me to listen.

My website and my writers. I run a sports website – CornNation.com – and I have a full staff of writers who write for me. It’s important I treat them with dignity and respect. It’s important I provide them with opportunities to grow as writers and have a fun doing it because there sure as hell isn’t enough money going around for it to be financially beneficial. It’s important that I put them in a position to be successful.

What goals do you have?

I am a goal-oriented person. I find this more true as I age. One of the biggest problems I faced after my heart attack was motivation. It was confounding. It could be best described as “I don’t give a damn about anything”. Six years later, the feeling runs through me like an underlying river current. It’s so easy to do nothing, to spend the days rabbit holing across the internet. To combat my lack of enthusiasm, I give myself goals. A key part of making them real is telling others about them, so I have an external force pulling me in the direction I want to go. I use journaling to define and reinforce my goals.

My primary ongoing goal is to be as healthy as possible. I’m not talking about “run a marathon” healthy. I want to stay in shape well enough that I can do things with and for my beautiful wife. While I would love to travel, maybe even get to Europe, I am more focused on helping with everyday chores so my wife doesn’t bear the burden of our household by herself.

I need to stay in shape to do what I love doing, such as being a credentialed photographer at sporting events. I need to be mentally alert to perform as an IT consultant and become a successful author. I’m still trying to discover what I need to do to make sure every morning I wake up with the least painful headache possible.

I have a goal of building a writing career in the next five years. I have no plans to retire. Perhaps I’ll feel different as the years roll on, but I believe I’d only be bored if I retired. I’d rather be in control of my own time in my retirement years.

I want to write and publish a fiction novel. I spent 20 years writing in the computer industry. I’ve spent another 15 years writing in sports. I have published a memoir. All of my writing to date, except for humor/satire articles on my website, has been nonfiction. Fiction will be an enormous challenge for me. Creating characters, a plot, and a world that readers find interesting is difficult but doing it while having memory problems because of a brain injury may be more than I capable of.

What do you worry about?

I have talked to quite a few heart attack survivors since the release of “Been Dead, Never Been To Europe”. There are so many who struggle with worry of having another heart attack. They can’t sleep. They can’t function. They’re overwhelmed with anxiety.

My biggest worry about myself is being kept alive as an invalid. I made that pretty clear in the memoir. It isn’t fear of another heart attack. It’s fear that another heart attack wouldn’t kill me but leave me so crippled I would be a parasite; that someone would have to take care of me for the rest of my life. The most prevalent worry is to be left in a shell with no means of communication. Ugh. I have no desire for that. It isn’t living. It’s a fate worse than death.

Other than that, I don’t worry. I really don’t. I don’t worry about losing my job. I don’t worry about what’s happening in the world. My trauma has drilled into me that I can’t spend energy worrying about what I don’t control. “Quit worrying” is an easy statement to make, but a difficult one to put to practice.

One bit of caution. Questions about fear and worry can get you started, but they can also be dangerous. They can suck you into the well of darkness. You should use these questions to examine yourself, get a better understanding of where you are, but avoid ruminating on them.

What are you thankful for?

This is a simple, but powerful question. Writing about what we’re thankful for is commonly referred to as “gratitude journaling”. “Gratitude” is defined as “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” There are many studies that sing the praises of gratitude journaling’s effect on our well-being.
An article in “Wisdom in Education” titled “Building Blocks: A Multi-Theoretical Preventative Model to Promote Post-Traumatic Growth”, stated the following about gratitude:

Gratitude’s role in post-traumatic growth gives an individual the ability to reappraise the negative event and see positive aspects in their life. These positive reappraisals hold off some of the more difficult aspects of PTSD and allow the individual to cope better with the trauma.


You can incorporate gratitude into your daily journal. It’s recommended to journal three times weekly about grateful experiences or memories.
It’s pretty easy to repeatedly say I’m grateful for the support of my wife and family. It’s no so bad to include them so you are thinking about that support to keep you from slipping back into darkness.
It helps if you include specific memories or events, such as:

I am grateful for getting to spend time buying lunch for my friend Jerry whom I don’t get to see very often. The Cubano sandwich was really good!

I don’t get out a lot. I work remotely at home almost all the time, so when I get out to an event, especially a sporting event, it’s special.

I am thankful I could attend the 2021 Nebraska football spring game and the Rutgers baseball series at Haymarket Park. I handled the heat, and got to have pizza with my friend Todd and meet one of my new writers, Aaron. It was a great time.

More from the paper quoted above about promoting post-traumatic growth:
These positive reappraisals hold off some of the more difficult aspects of PTSD and allow the individual to cope better with the trauma. While gratitude is not the only way an individual should deal with traumatic life events, research shows that exercising gratitude can be beneficial for protecting one against negative life events.

I know heart attack survivors live in fear of having another. I’ve talked with people who’ve been in car accidents who find it difficult driving again because they’re worried it will happen again. Trauma gets burned into our consciousness and is very hard to move beyond.

What I’ve Learned From Journaling

I have learned an immense amount about myself from journaling. Looking back, I realized defining my goals, along with what is important to me has helped me tremendously in my daily life. The two help me align myself, which is another way of saying I understand what I need to spend time on and how I can protect my mental energy.

Like most people I spend an inordinate time on the internet accomplishing nothing. Remembering my goals, I understand that time is wasted. I frequently ask myself if what I’m doing is important; if it is helping me get anywhere. If it isn’t, then I make the choice whether I continue to waste my time or stop what I’m doing.

Understanding what is important to me helps with my memory. It’s an odd statement, but let me explain. I have strong opinions. Those are reflecting in my sports writing, my podcasts, and my YouTube videos. I frequently receive very negative comments from people who disagree with me. At times they’re very insulting. I have learned to ignore them. It’s not that hard to do.

Are complete strangers who send you nasty emails amongst the list of people I carry about as defined above? No? Then why would I care what they have to say about me? I let it go. I forget about it… well; I do my best to forget about it.

Every once in a while a negative comment will get to me. I get angry about it. The anger exhausts me. I can feel the mental energy drain from me, as if someone were draining the blood from my body. If I don’t stop for a moment to reflect on what is important, my headache pain will explode and the comment will ruin my day.

This philosophy applies to everyday encounters. Perhaps the cashier at Target makes a comment I don’t like. I get cut off in traffic. I want to relax on my deck but my neighbor is having a loud party. The dog barks at everyone who walks by our house; sometimes she barks at invisible objects. I break my fancy french press coffee maker.
None of these are important. None impede me from my goals. I do my best to forget them immediately.

If something happens that involves “The Important Group” and I can’t resolve it, I journal about it. I ask myself why it really bothers me, what I can do to fix it, and how I can do better with it in the future.

Another major benefit from journaling is determining what habits effect my health. I have proven to myself a good night of sleep is the single most beneficial thing I can do to assure the minimum amount of chronic headache pain in the morning. I am currently working on tracking different supplements, such as magnesium, to determine how they affect my health.

Journaling has helped me to define and understand this process. Without it, I wouldn’t be nearly as productive as I am.

Journaling is as close to free therapy as you’re going to get. The only actual cost is confronting yourself, being open about who you are, where you’re going and what you’re going to do. You could start right now. Put down this book and take 10-20 minutes to journal. Then do it again tomorrow.

Controlling Anxiety Through Journaling – Part Two – Getting Started

This is part two of a three-part series on Controlling Anxiety Through Journaling.

Part One
Part Three

Remember, you don’t need a lot of equipment to get started in journaling. Your preferred writing instrument and a simple paper notebook will do. You’re going to start by setting aside 10-20 minutes in your day to write in a notebook, and you’re going to do it four or five days in a row.

If you can, start by writing about a topic that is extremely personal and important to you. It’s important you write about both the emotions and the event. The two are intertwined, but if you want to reap the most benefit, you’re going to have to re-visit the event.

Don’t force this on yourself if you feel like you’re going to have a breakdown. If it is completely overwhelming, it might be best to start on less emotional subjects and work your way to your trauma, or you might consider doing counseling.

Start by writing continuously for 10-20 minutes without worrying about grammar, spelling, or structure. Don’t worry about what your high school English teacher would think. Don’t worry about your family, your friends, your pastor will think. This journal is for YOU. It is not for anyone else to read unless you allow it. You are welcome to destroy what you’ve written after you’re done with it (although it may be beneficial later as a reference to where you were at the time of writing).

Accept that starting is going to be difficult. You’re going to experience a huge amount of emotions. It took me a three years to write “Been Dead, Never Been To Europe”. I cried for a few minutes every time I wrote or edited, but at the end I understood a lot more about who I am and where I’m going than if I’d never written it. I still cry whenever I do an interview or talk about my trauma when meeting new people. Trauma is damned hard.

You should expect to feel sad. Trauma is HARD. Dealing with the emotional fall-out around trauma is hard. “HARD” should not be a reason to avoid the process. Burying those emotions and ignoring them means they’re going to linger, then fester, then boil over to the surface, probably at the worst time possible. Emotions don’t typically explode when you’re alone by yourself in the bathroom. They explode when all the other stress in your life gets to the point you can no longer control them. Then they blow up, typically all over the people you love the most. You’re left wondering how you’re going to clean up the mess you just made.

Don’t do that. Try the journaling instead. You can do it alone in your bathroom if you like. Stick a towel in your mouth if you’re worried about others hearing you crying (gee, it’s almost as if I’ve been there). You have my permission.

You may find it difficult to get started with the actual writing if you don’t want to jump right into your traumatic event. What should you write about? What should you say?

You can start by asking yourself the following questions:

What is important to you?
What goals do you have?
What worries you?
What do you fear?
What causes you anxiety?
What do you want to do with your life?
What are you thankful for?
On what do you spend your time?
What are you doing now that gets in the way of accomplishing your goals?

If you’re having problems starting, imagine you’re talking to an imaginary friend. They’re not just for children. At times, I pretend I’m talking to an alien, explaining life on this planet, human beings, and how screwy we are.

Other times, I pretend I’m talking to a real-life friend or loved one, and I imagine them setting next to me. Sometimes I imagine I’m talking to my Mom. She died in 2012. She always has answers to my questions about life. She’s still a fountain of wisdom.

You can do the same. You can tell those people (or aliens) all the things you want to tell them if you only could in real life. Tell them in your private journal. You might find it easier to talk to them in real life the next time you’re presented with the opportunity.

Next up, I’ll give examples on how I answered some of the starter questions. Lead by example – that’s what I always say. (That is a lie. I frequently lead by shouting profanities at people. You don’t have to tell anybody else that part.)

Controlling Anxiety Through Journaling – Part One

This is part one of a three-part series on Controlling Anxiety Through Journaling.

Part Two
Part Three

Journaling is the act of writing your thoughts and feelings regularly so that you can better understand them. Journaling was called “keeping a diary” years ago, but that brings up images of teenage girls in their bedroom hand writing in a notebook protected by a cheesy lock that wouldn’t deter an interested mouse.

“Journaling” sounds much more mature than “keeping a diary”, doesn’t it?

Of course it does. This is why there is a cottage industry built around journaling; you can go to Amazon and buy fancy books with writing prompts so you can journal in style. I don’t mean to be too snarky; journaling has significant benefits and that’s what we’re going to learn in this chapter.

Keeping track of your life provides an ongoing account about where you’ve been and where you’re going. It provides emotional release. It may sound goofy, but journaling can increase your health. In a 1999 study, “Effects of Writing About Stressful Experiences on Symptom Reduction in Patients With Asthma or Rheumatoid Arthritis”, participants who were chronically ill with asthma or rheumatoid arthritis were asked to write an essay expressing their thoughts and feelings about a traumatic experience. Those who did had “clinically relevant changes in health status” compared with those in a control group who wrote about unimportant subjects. This means that there was a measurable change in health for those who wrote about their trauma. That’s amazing.

A 2018 article in “Advances In Psychiatric Treatment” titled “Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing” reported:
Writing about traumatic, stressful or emotional events has been found to result in improvements in both physical and psychological health, in non-clinical and clinical populations. In the expressive writing paradigm, participants are asked to write about such events for 15–20 minutes on 3–5 occasions. Those who do so generally have significantly better physical and psychological outcomes compared with those who write about neutral topics.

Journaling is an incredibly useful tool in the fight against anxiety and depression. I found journaling to be extremely beneficial. If you don’t believe me, believe the science.I started journaling because I wanted to understand how to best handle my health. I was diagnosed with an anoxic brain injury and because of it I have chronic headaches. I wake up with a headache every morning. On the scale of 1-10, with 10 being the worst possible migraine, my headache might be a “2”. It might be an “8”. I sought to find if what I did in my everyday life made a difference in how bad my headaches were.

I now use a journal to write down all aspects of my life. I try to journal every day. It has been useful in determining what effects my health. I have tracked my sleep, diet, activities, and how I feel emotionally and physically. I used it to write my book, “Been Dead, Never Been To Europe”. Writing the book was cathartic in putting my death behind me and allowing me to move on to live life as much as I could.

Warehouse Theory – Explaining Why My Memory Is So Fractured
“Warehouse Theory” is a story I have used to explain why my memory is so fractured after recovering from a heart attack and traumatic brain injury.
Warehouse Theory – Explaining Why My Memory Is So Fractured
“Warehouse Theory” is a story I have used to explain why my memory is so fractured after recovering from a heart attack and traumatic brain injury.

What I discovered by journaling on a regular basis was that sleep was the most important factor of whether I woke up with a “2” or an “8” headache. It’s not perfect. Six years after my death, I have bad days with little to no idea why I am in so much pain.

I journal about my goals. I keep track about what I did for work on any given day. Keeping track of everything allows me to go back to a reference if my customers are asking why we made a decision the way we did, or how we determined the parameters of an IT project.

I journal about what I’m grateful for. Gratitude journaling is one of the ways that you can combine with turning bad thoughts to good, a concept for which we’ll have an entire chapter. It’s a tool to help rewire your brain so that you stop focusing on negative thoughts and start thinking about the good things in your life.

I journal about whatever is bothering me at the time.

Another good thing about journaling – it’s pretty darned close to free. You don’t need anything fancy for journaling. You can buy a simple three-ring binder notebook and handwrite your daily entries. You can use a word processor on your computer. You can use apps specialized for journaling. I prefer to do voice journaling, where I talk into a voice recorder, and have the words transcribed, then keep track of journals in Scrivener, a software application for writers.

Controlling Anxiety Through Journaling – Part Two – Getting Started is the next of this series.

Journaling is not a substitute for therapy or counseling. If your anxiety or depression is overwhelming, consider seeing a professional. Having said that, I know there are people who wouldn’t talk to a therapist if their life was was in danger. This should strike you ironic because many times it is. I am still surprised at the number of people I talk to who don’t understand that anxiety, depression, and stress can cause serious problems with their physical well-being.

In you won’t see a therapist, journaling is at least a next-best option.

Why would you NOT do journaling? I can show a multitude of studies beyond what I included here that show its health benefits. It is easy. It is free. It doesn’t require you to open up to another human being so you won’t feel embarrassed.

I’d honestly like to know. Send me an email – jj@jonjohnston.com – leave a comment here.

Travel Anxiety – A Practical Approach

I am traveling to Texas this week. It’s making me feel like being a kid all over again.

It’s not what you think.

It’s not the childlike experience of adventure and joy of discovering new things I’m talking about. Give a child a phone or a laptop and they play with it. They don’t worry about breaking it. They don’t worry about pushing the wrong buttons, they just play. It’s pretty cool to watch. Give an adult a laptop and they’re convinced they’ll push the wrong button, end up talking to a guy named Sven who will convince them to take off their clothes and give him all their money. Adults are wary of the unfamiliar.
I have become unfamiliar with travel. I’ve been stuck at home most of this pandemic. I’ve been living in one room that serves as both a bedroom and an office. I’ve been to one customer site two times in the last six months. I drove from Minneapolis to Lincoln ,Nebraska a couple of weeks ago to see the Nebraska football spring game and a baseball series with Rutgers. That’s it recently.
Now I’m traveling to Dallas over Memorial Day weekend.
It’s making me anxious. My wife had to book the flight. I sat on the couch trying to think up reasons not to go.
Why am I apprehensive? I’ve always been anxious about getting on a plane. I have no fear of flying. I love airplanes. It’s the idea of getting to the airport, checking in, getting through security, going to the right gate and getting on the correct plane that always bothers me.

What if I’m on a no fly list? Some other Jon Johnston has been wreaking havoc throughout the universe and I’ll be the one to take the blame. What if I miss my flight? How do I get another one? What if they’ve all left without me? What if I’m at the airport when a giant cyber security attack happens, or an EMP, the world we know comes to an end and I’m stuck at the airport IN HOUSTON, one of the last cities I would want to be stuck in during an apocalyptic event. What if I get on the wrong flight, fall asleep and in end up in Borneo with no way of returning home ever again. Is Borneo nice this time of year? Where the hell is Borneo anyway?

What happens every time I travel is this. I go to airport security, I don’t have a problem, because I’m over prepared. I get there 18 hours ahead of time. I get on my plane, I get to my destination. I get picked up by someone and I arrive. Everything goes without a hitch.
I have a great time wherever I’m at. I enjoy talking to people. I see the sites. I’m around the unfamiliar. I love it.
Then I don’t want to leave. This is where it’s like feeling like a kid all over again, because that is exactly how kids respond to you taking them someplace they’d never been.
I don’t want to go.
I don’t want to go.
I don’t want to go.
Scream, cry, throw themselves on the floor.
I don’t want to go.
We put them in the car, or whatever mode of travel. We take them to the place. They spend a minute getting familiar. They notice there are no monsters. They start playing with whomever or whatever is available. They have fun. Enormous amounts of fun.
When we tell them it’s time to go, we get the same thing we had when we started.

I don’t want to go.
I don’t want to go.
I don’t want to go.
Scream, cry, throw themselves on the floor.
I don’t want to go.

I don’t get as far as throwing myself on the floor, but that’s only because I’m old and it hurts, otherwise I’d damned sure do it for effect.

I have to fight myself to go. I know that I’m going to have fun, but I have to force myself to get up off the couch first. I know I will get anxious about getting to wherever I’m going.
What’s odd is that I’ve taught myself to overcome anxiety in a lot of situations, but I know I’m still going to be anxious about this. I recently spent an hour getting a cardiac MRI and it was the most Stanley Kubrick moment of my life. I have trained myself to go to sleep when I get a MRI, but this time I had to hold my breath about 40 times – not an exaggeration. I had a plate on my chest, which made the tube more claustrophobic than normal. MRI scan sounds banged around me.
I was unfazed… okay, at the beginning I admit I had the same thought I’ve had with every MRI. The moment I’m shoved into the tube, I think “there’s going to be an earthquake, the building will collapse, everyone will die but me, and I won’t be mercifully crushed, I’ll just be stuck here in this tube, and this is how I will die.” Never mind there aren’t earthquakes in Minnesota.
The second thought I have is “a killer will walk into the room, shoot everyone doing the MRI and then leave. The police will come in, investigate, clean up the crime scene and block it off while I’m still suck in the tube forgotten and this is how I will die”.
It’s the same every time. I accept the terrible thoughts; they wash over me, then they go away and I am free to deal with the rest of the MRI.

Also Read: When Faced With Uncertainty, Remember The Serenity Prayer

I have taught myself to be calm in many different situations so the headaches that come with my brain injury don’t overwhelm me with stress. Perhaps the key to dealing with travel anxiety to accept it’s going to happen, let it happen and pass over, just like I do with the MRI.

I could focus on myself as the child who’s already arrived at my destination, found there are no monsters, and think about having fun. Next time I’m headed to the airport, I’m going to try this approach. I’ll let you know how it goes.

What anxiety do you never seem to get over?