Most of us only have a vague notion of what is REALLY causing us to feel stressed. For example, when you say "my job is stressful," what does that mean? There could be any number of reasons why you feel that your job is stressful. One of the best ways to pinpoint exactly what is going on is to keep a journal or a log of anything and everything that stresses you for at least a week, preferably two.
When I first kept a journal (I use the term loosely here. I really just kept a simple log of my stress.) I noticed I experienced stress at the grocery store, the bank and the DMV. Can you guess what I was doing in all three places? If I hadn't seen the simple phrase that I'd written down on the page, three times, I NEVER would have put this together.
I was waiting in line.
The journaling helped me go from having only a vague notion that the DMV, the bank and the grocery store were occasionally stressful to having a specific problem that I could solve. I just had to find a time when the lines were shorter. The bank was an easy problem to solve. Can you guess which day of the week I was banking on? Yep. It was Friday and it was during my lunch hour. Probably the busiest time of the week!
Then I called the DMV and asked: when is the least busy time to come to the DMV? To my surprise, they had a very specific answer: Come in the middle of the week and preferably in the middle of the month. That way you miss the people who either want to get there right at the beginning of the month (or week) or the procrastinators who wait till the end of the month (or week). The grocery store was also easy. Try to avoid Saturday afternoons and just before a snowstorm!
So as I said before, when I use the word journaling, I'm really just keeping very short notes about the stressful things that happen to me. (See the example below.) However, there is research to support the notion that writing down your thoughts in the traditional sense of journaling will also help lower your stress. It's similar to writing an angry email or a letter that you never send. It gives you a harmless outlet for your anger and stress and allows you to sort out your feelings about the situation without offending ANYONE.
Beethoven famously did this with The Heiligenstadt Testament, a letter that he wrote (but never sent) to his brothers when he first realized he was going deaf. In this letter he vented all his frustration about his condition. Historians believe that writing the letter helped him come to terms with his situation, because he had two of the most productive years of his life right afterwards, composing some of his most famous works. So journaling in the true sense of the word can be very helpful, too.
But you don't HAVE to journal to find out what's bugging you. You just have to keep a log of who or what stresses you and when it happens. If you like, you can rank the stressors you encounter on a scale from 1-10. So at the end of a day your log might look like this:
This gives you an idea of how simple this process can be, just a few notes that you jot down at various points throughout your day. It's best to carry around something like a small spiral notebook, a daily calendar or an electronic device where you can record your observations as soon as you have them. Don't wait until the next day, as you will conveniently forget much of what happens to you. At the very least, do it when you come home at night, but it's much better to do your note-taking on the fly, as soon after it happens as possible.
What you will notice after you do this for at least a week is that patterns will start to emerge - like it did for me with waiting in line - where you see your stress recurring over and over under the same or similar circumstances. People, places, times of day, certain activities may consistently cause you stress. When you recognize a pattern, THIS IS A GOOD THING! Because it usually means that if you make a few changes you can PERMANENTLY eliminate this RECURRING source of stress.
Think about this, we always talk about managing stress, but when you journal the goal is to find unnecessary stress that you can actually ELIMINATE! You may notice that you get stressed a lot in the morning getting the kids ready for school and/or getting yourself ready for work. And you may realize after seeing this pattern day after day, that by just getting up a half hour earlier, or showering and/or getting lunches ready the night before, that you no longer have what may have seemed to you previously as a permanent source of stress.
So the PAYOFF from actually tracking your stress for a few weeks can be quite dramatic!
Now if you are a trainer, and you're thinking about teaching others about journaling, first try it yourself for two weeks. You've got to experience this for yourself, before you can enthusiastically recommend it to the employees and/or clients or patients that you work with. THIS is VERY IMPORTANT. You can't teach this until you try it out first. By doing it yourself, you will be able to create a set of personal observations, from which you can create STORIES that everyone can relate to and LEARN from, like I did with my story about waiting in line.
If you're an individual reading this article, remember, the voice inside your head is going to tell you: You don't need to do this. It's a waste of time. You already know what bugs you. Why do you need to write it down? Trust me on this folks. My advice to you is: Ignore this voice.
Be sure to check out our product THE STRESS MANAGEMENT JOURNAL, if you want an actual TOOL for teaching people or yourself how to journal (or keep a log) of your stress on a daily basis. Not only is there an easy format for tracking stress daily, there is also a short lesson about managing and eliminating stress that occurs on every page. These tips include learning about stress symptoms to learning about relaxation techniques and even learning how to change your thinking on the fly, so you can learn to short-circuit stress, while it's happening.
For those of you who are subscribed to our online web resource MY STRESS TOOLS, don't forget to log your entries in your daily journal. Check out your graphs to see where you've used maladaptive behavior, whether it's been a while since you practiced yoga, or whether your time management stress levels are going down. (If you are not a subscriber, and would like a free 1 month trial to MyStressTools, sign up here.)