Feeling Anxious? Grab a Pen and Paper.
Over many centuries, journals have served as tools for recording history, as emotional outlets and as creative stimulants. In the current age of self-care and self-optimization — not to mention digital overload — logbooks are resurging, this time as a means of supporting one’s mental health.
The Anti-Anxiety Notebook, a tidy blue-and-white volume, is one example. It takes a page, or several, from cognitive-behavioral therapy, featuring work sheets that aim to challenge cognitive distortions — the thought patterns that can make anxiety worse, such as catastrophizing (assuming the most disastrous possibility will play out) or self-blaming (“believing that you are entirely responsible for a negative situation,” as the book's appendix puts it).
“When we were writing this notebook, we were thinking, ‘How do we put tools into people’s hands?’” said Dr. Hod Tamir, a clinical adviser to the book’s parent company, Therapy Notebooks. “It’s hard to sift through academic literature to figure out how to deal with your anxiety.” And, he noted, “not everyone can go to therapy.”
Therapy Notebooks has sold more than 100,000 copies of the Anti-Anxiety Notebook, which retails for $38, since it was released last summer. The company received an early Instagram boost from an admirer: the actress Lili Reinhart, a star of the CW’s “Riverdale,” who has spoken openly about dealing with anxiety and depression. “Wes and I had nothing to do with it,” Varshil Patel, who founded Therapy Notebooks with Wesley Zhao, said of Ms. Reinhart’s post.
All told, their company works with 10 psychologists to create its products. In November, Therapy Notebooks will release a more academic guidebook focused on depression.
The potential value of mental health care has not escaped businesses. Venture capital firms invested $852 million in mental health tools in the first quarter of 2021, an increase of 73 percent since the same period last year, according to CB Insights, an analytics firm.
And there’s a documented demand for such tools. “Individuals are seeking out treatment at levels we’ve never seen before,” said Dr. Vaile Wright, the senior director of health care innovation at the American Psychological Association.
“You’re seeing more hospitalizations and suicidal ideation,” Dr. Wright said. “People are experiencing more depression, anxiety and substance abuse. But you’ve also seen an increase in acceptance of mental health care, with celebrities and athletes speaking out about it more.” She said that self-directed cognitive-behavioral therapy — in a journal, for example — is effective at reducing symptoms of depression or anxiety, particularly when the case is mild.
Though there is now less stigma around mental health care, treatment remains out of reach for many. About one-third of people who needed mental health care in the last year were not able to get it, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll from earlier this year found. The top two challenges? Finding a provider and covering the cost. (Not all providers take insurance, and there are out-of-pocket costs with many who do.)
Though diary-keeping has been a popular practice at least since the 10th century by women in the Japanese court, its therapeutic effects were first studied by James Pennebaker in 1986. A recent review of the scientific literature found that expressive writing can ease symptoms of depression, anxiety and other disorders; increase psychological well-being; and support resilience and recovery from trauma.
When people use writing to express themselves, Dr. Wright said, they “increase emotional regulation, clarify life goals, find meaning, and give voice to feelings, which can help construct a meaningful story.” She added that looking back through old journal entries can remind the writer of the times she struggled but persevered.
Anyone who has bought a blank diary in a fit of inspiration and then left it to gather dust knows that spontaneous journaling can be hard to keep up with. “These guided journals have that extra benefit of focusing the content,” Dr. Wright said. “It’s almost like a bridge to doing it with a therapist.”
Writing by hand is also a way to get offline. Papier, a stationery company in London, created its Wellness Journal ($32.99) last October after employees noticed that customers were using its paper products to unplug. “There was a general kind of interest in analog, people switching off technology because they were inundated with Zoom calls and had no distinction between life and work,” said Sophie Agar, the company’s global brand director.
Inside, the journal is “quite directional in some areas, but we leave some space for interpretation,” Ms. Agar said. “There’s space for intentions, sleep and water monitoring, meal planning, tracking your mood.” Papier has sold 60,000 copies of the Wellness Journal.
The Human Being Journal, which went on sale last November, offers a similar combination of introspection and goal setting. Created by Genevive Savundranayagam and Sheba Zaidi, who quit their jobs in corporate communications last February to start a company called Mahara Mindfulness, the journal starts with a vision board with different categories, such as career, health, travel and community. Further on, there are questions that are meant to challenge the addressee, such as “How comfortable are you being alone?”
Already, the Human Being Journal has appeared in Oprah Daily’s Healthy Living Guide; on Kourtney Kardashian’s lifestyle site, Poosh; and on Lauren Conrad’s gift guide. (Oprah Winfrey has her own “The Life You Want” planner going on sale at the end of this month.) So far, women far outpace men when it comes to journaling, at least according to sales figures. Eighty percent of the customers of Therapy Notebooks are women, and 90 percent of Papier’s entire customer base is female.
Buying these notebooks isn’t enough; to benefit from them, one must set aside the time to reflect. The Human Being Journal founders recommend sitting down with their guidebook once a month for a year.
“I light a candle and spend an hour with myself,” Ms. Savundranayagam said. “We’re not a journal you do quickly. It takes time. But you don’t stumble into a dream life.”
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