From education to employment

Diary-keeping to manage anxiety

Dr Lucy Kelly, author of Reimagining the Diary, published by John Catt Educational, shares insights and advice on the benefits of diary-keeping as a self-reflective tool to support personal wellbeing.

Anxiety is the focus of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW). For those within the FE sector – students and educators alike – anxiety can affect our wellbeing, particularly in assessment season and this final part of the academic year.

In the most recent survey on adolescent mental health, the NHS found that 22% of young people (aged 17-24) had a ‘probable mental health disorder’ NHS Digital, 2022 – an increase on previous years. Couple this with statistics from the Teacher Wellbeing Index 2022, which shows higher anxiety in educators than other professionals, it’s important that both educators and students are given the tools to support their mental health and wellbeing.

A diary is one such tool, and when it comes to anxiety, I believe that diary-keeping can help support educators and students alike. A diary provides a space to ‘download’ your day, celebrate the positives and look at an event/situation from different perspectives. These aspects are vital when it comes to dealing with anxiety.

Catharsis can be defined as “the process of releasing strong emotions through a particular activity or experience” (Cambridge Dictionary, 2022). The pages of a diary can act as a ‘container for all of those reactions and feelings which threaten to overwhelm and … potentially poison ourselves and our relationships’ (Thompson, 2011, p. 37).

One way to understand this is Cognitive Load Theory

The demand placed on our working memory and mental energy by a task or range of tasks. ‘Downloading’ the day, or an experience, helps reduce our cognitive load and alleviate some of our working memory. This process of downloading then gives us more mental space for ourselves and others. It’s a way of ‘organizing our complicated and messy mental and emotional lives [and] helps to keep our psychological compass oriented’ (Pennebaker & Smyth, 2016, p. 80).

In terms of lowering anxiety, this process of downloading can help because we’re turning the abstract into the concrete, which makes it much easier to deal with. Seeing those fears and worries on the page – e.g. the amount of marking we need to do, or the number of essays we need to write – means we can begin to deal with them, either personally or with support from others. And, decluttering our mind in this way, will help us to make better decisions at home and in work.

Humans are hard-wired to focus on the negatives rather than the positives, but celebration can be an antidote to anxiety. A diary is ‘a place/space for us to rewire our brains and our “negativity bias”’ (Emmons, 2008, p. 127). We can use the mirror element of our diary to show us the blank space around the black dot, and to consciously celebrate it. Moreover, the portal function of the diary can allow us to travel beyond the “negativity bias” and to ‘unlock new physical, intellectual, psychological, and social resources’ (McKeown, 2021, p. 57).

Indeed, the more we see the positives, the easier it is to transition to a ‘growth mindset’. According to Rick Hanson, ‘the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones’ (‘Do Positive Experiences “Stick to Your Ribs”?’). A diary gives us a chance to turn that Teflon into Velcro and create a surface for these positive experiences to stick to.

Finally, a diary can offer perspective, which is important when it comes to anxiety because, if we’re feeling anxious, we can be prone to fixation. If we fixate on something, then it means we might miss key information that can help to alleviate the anxiety we’re feeling.

A diary provides the chance to look at an event or situation from different perspectives, which can lower our anxiety because we see the whole picture, rather than a slice of it. It’s a bit like looking at an artefact in a museum. You circle around it, and you notice that the colour is a little brighter than you initially thought, or there’s a huge amount of detail you hadn’t noticed to begin with. When considering ourselves, once these details have been observed, they’re easier to deal with and change.

Indeed, we can use the perspective aspect of a diary to consider our stress levels: when is eustress (positive stress) moving into distress (negative stress), and what strategies can we use to get out of the ‘red zone’ and avoid depletion? Each person’s stress state will be different, so it’s important to spend time exploring what stress looks like and feels like for you, and the tools that help you to manage it.

A diary offers educators and their students a safe place to get to know themselves at a deeper level. This insight helps manage anxiety and navigate the present, as well as the future. In a world of competing deadlines and never-ending ‘to do’ lists, a diary can anchor us and remind us of what’s important. It can help us to see that we’re humans, not machines, and to seek support from others.

Here’s a selection of  tried and tested activities to get you started:

The ‘Ta-Dah’ list

This activity works in the same way as a ‘to do’ list, but rather than listing what you haven’t done, flip it and list what you have. As you progress through your day – or at the end of it – write down everything you’ve achieved. Decide how small you want to go depending on how you’re feeling. It might be that getting the children to school on time is a big achievement (definitely me!); or perhaps planning and teaching 5 lessons; or maybe remembering to take a lunchbreak. The list is endless, but the purpose is for you to finish the day feeling a sense of achievement and accomplishment, rather than disappointment. Keep your lists and at the end of the week/month celebrate just how much you’ve done both personally and professionally.

Daily or weekly review

This activity is about stepping back and reviewing the bigger picture. What habits or trends have you noticed, and what do you want to do differently tomorrow/next week? Your response could be purely written, or a mixture of images, writing, and/or audio recording.

Write your worries down

However small worries might be, writing them down and turning the abstract into the concrete can be really helpful. Your worries could be personal professional or both. You might want to keep these worries to return to and think about later, or you could tear them up and throw them away. For some, burning your worries can feel liberating. This isn’t to say that the worries immediately disappear, but separating yourself from them through the act of writing, can lessen the power they have, help you gain some perspective and reach out for support.

Goal for the day

At the beginning of your day, write down, draw, or audio record your goal for the day.  Return to it in the evening and celebrate your progress towards meeting it. Remember to be kind to yourself and celebrate what you have done, rather than what you haven’t. In fact, one of your goals could be to be kind to yourself, or it might be to leave work by 5pm and have a work-free evening.

The ‘I’m awesome!’ repository

Use your diary to note down positive comments colleagues, friends, family, and students have said to you, or about you. You could even stick in little notes and cards you’ve been given. Go back to this repository when you need a reminder about your ‘awesomeness’.

By Dr Lucy Kelly

Dr Lucy Kelly is an Associate Professor in Education at the University of Bristol. She is Principal Investigator for the ‘Reimagining the Diary’ project promoting reflective practice as a positive tool for educator wellbeing.

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