As someone with generalized anxiety disorder and a serious lack of ability to organize, my No. 1 way to get my life together when I'm overstressed or overwhelmed is making lists. I've always kept a pad of sticky notes on my desk so I can make everything from to-do lists to notes about what I want to have for dinner. When you're mentally ill, it's easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of things we have to do each day. Discovering bullet journaling helped my anxiety in a big way — and bonus, bullet journaling doesn't involve tons of sticky notes on every surface of my living space.
Dr. Joshua Klapow, clinical psychologist and host of The Web Radio Show, tells Bustle that this feeling of "overload" I experience isn't unusual. On top of that, "The irony is that being anxious puts us in a position where we have less cognitive emotional, behavioral and pysiological resources or capacity," Klapow explains. "So the more anxious we become the worse we will do at tastes like remembering, concentrating, focusing, staying emotionally balanced."
That's where journaling and list-making comes in. For anxiety sufferers, the bonuses of journaling are twofold, Klapow says. First, keeping a journal "help[s] us 'off-load' mental/cognitive information that is taking up space in our brain"; and second, "[t]hey serve as a back-up [sic] system in case we get anxious and our cognitive capacity is negatively impacted," Klapow says.
While these two benefits apply to any kind of list-making, for me, bullet journaling has been especially effective. If you're unfamiliar with bullet journaling, it's essentially a highly organized but also highly customizable system that helps you track everything going on in your life on a monthly, weekly, and daily basis. You can make any notebook into a bullet journal — the organizational system can be drawn in by hand, and you can tweak it to fit your needs and preferences. Starter guides made by the person who invented the bullet journaling system are available online, and while it looks complicated at first, once you've got it down, it becomes a one-stop shop for staying on track.
Klapow says journaling can be particularly helpful for taking information "which may be in our heads but causing emotional distress and move it to another location." Because bullet journaling isn't just a calendar, but a task-tracker, a to-do list, a journal, a place to unleash your creativity, and a place to put your goals, you can also use it to write down things you're concerned about, whether that's filing your taxes or making a phone call.
For me, assigning anxiety-causing tasks and events a specific day — for example, "file your taxes Mar. 12" or "call the doctor Mar. 16" — helps me focus on other things now, knowing I've set aside time to do those tasks. Klapow says writing down tasks also helps because journals can't forget important things like we can. "[T]he act of writing allows us to discharge the fear of losing the information and discharge the information itself," he says. "The result is a reduction in anxiety which frees up space in our brains and not trying to hold on to information which also frees up space in our brains."
List-making also helps mete out bigger tasks like "clean the house." While the idea of cleaning my entire house is a massive, looming ball of anxiety in my brain, when I break down "clean the house" into a week's worth of small tasks in my bullet journal, the overall accomplishment becomes much more manageable. And nothing beats the satisfaction of getting to cross out each task as I complete them, until my week is filled with crossed-out to-do's.
Klapow does caution that list-making and journaling can work "wonderfully" for people, but if journaling itself becomes a source of anxiety, it's "probably a sign of a more serious anxiety disorder," he says. "If you find yourself worrying that you haven't made the list, didn't journal, etc., or if list-making and journaling create more anxiety, then it is time to talk to a mental health professional."
For folks who find journaling comforting, though, and who need a little help keeping their whirling brains organized, bullet journaling can definitely be a major asset.