Tracking Anxiety: Charting the Course to Calm

The Importance of Self-Monitoring

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Whether working on your generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) symptoms on your own or with a mental health practitioner – perhaps in a structured psychotherapy like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or by taking medication – keeping track of your symptoms and how they respond to different interventions will help you chart a clearer course toward improved wellbeing.

Tracking anxiety, or self-monitoring as it sometimes called by clinicians, refers to do-it-yourself data collection about your symptoms in your natural environment.

Self-monitoring has multiple purposes:

First, keeping written or electronic records about a particular symptom (or set of symptoms) can help improve awareness of your anxiety patterns, including the impact of symptoms on your actions. For example, if you noted every time you experienced physical manifestations of anxiety – jotting down what you felt, where, in what context – you might be able to connect symptoms such as an upset stomach or increased blood pressure with having conversations with your spouse about finances. You might learn that experiencing these symptoms in this setting tends to result in avoidance of routinely monitoring your spending habits. With this knowledge comes increased clarity about anxiety-related symptoms, topics, and circumstances that would benefit from a little more of your attention.

Second, tracking can help certain actions to become less automatic. Maybe collecting data about your anxiety reveals that when you use alcohol to relax, it backfires and winds up worsening how you feel physically and mentally.

The next time that you reach for a glass of wine after a stressful day, you may register this differently and be less likely to take a sip.

Self-monitoring also provides a record – an actual or virtual paper trail – that can help you develop ideas for small changes to try and allow you to appreciate the progress you make each step of the way toward larger goals.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that on days when you exercise you feel better able to manage your worry; a next logical step might be to set up some mini-experiments increasing your activity and tracking what types of activity are most effective stress reducers for you.

Another form of tracking has to do with thoughts, rather than emotions, sensations, or behaviors. Writing down worry thoughts is widens the gap between you and your fairly automatic anxious beliefs. Seeing these thoughts in writing might assist you in recognizing that not every thought you have is true – and that many assumptions need to be tested against the evidence if you want to exert control over uncontrollable worry.

Keeping track of things is tough work, and self-monitoring is no different. The challenges of self-monitoring are (1) remembering to do it, (2) doing it in a timely manner (since doing it in hindsight may bias your perception or recollection), and (3) finding it as burdensome as a homework assignment in a demanding class.

Do yourself a favor by anticipating some of the challenges and working to prevent them.

  • Consider using an alarm to remind you to monitor regularly.
  • Remind yourself that this is not a homework assignment without purpose or end. It’s a short-term commitment with long-term benefits.
  • Pick something to track that really genuinely interests you.
  • Get creative in determining the easiest way for you to monitor. This could mean limiting how often your monitor, how much you track at one time, or what mechanism you use to create a record (i.e., a Smartphone application, a small notebook, your calendar).  
  • Establish a guideline for yourself – or in consultation with your clinician – that you will help you know that you’ve learned what you needed to, successfully made a change, and can sustain this change without continued monitoring.

Tracking anxiety-related symptoms is likely to pay off in the short- and long-term. This do-it-yourself method of record keeping is a strategy that you can return to if symptoms recur; it can help you to quickly regain your footing…and your calm.

References:

Barlow D.H. (Ed.) (2001). Clinical Handbook of Psychological Disorders (3rd Ed.). New York: Guilford Press.

Leahy R.L. (2005). The Worry Cure: Seven Steps to Stop Worry from Stopping You. New York: Three Rivers Press.

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