Jon Johnston

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

Disabled School Don't Burn

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 – – 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.

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