Everyone feels stressed at various times in their lives. Some people seem to just feel it for a moment then let the stress fly right past, while others hold on to it and brood over the problem. Other people live in a constant state of stress and may only have a vague idea of why they feel overwhelmed. What causes different people to respond so differently? It is partially due to personality, but a large factor in how people respond to stress lies in a combination of their lifestyle habits and the stress management techniques they have developed.
While some people have a naturally sunny disposition and others do not, lifestyle habits play a role in your ability to handle stress well. Eating a healthy diet while limiting sweets and alcohol, exercising regularly, getting plenty of sleep, and relaxing are great lifestyle habits that help you respond better to daily stressors.
When you have experienced a traumatic event, your ability to handle the problems that life throws at you every day is often impacted. Even if you previously handled stress well, it may become harder to process events and emotions as efficiently as you normally would.
Whether a traumatic event or a difficult relationship or job is a major source of stress, or all the little things in life have piled up to overwhelm you, there are a variety of stress management techniques that may help you take control. Time in nature and earthing, deep breathing, grounding, journaling, and prayer or meditation are excellent ways to better manage your stress. Each of these techniques can help people boost their mood, control their thoughts and emotions, and even manage depression and anxiety.
How Can Journaling Help?
Journaling is a stress management technique that can be highly effective in helping you process and gain control of emotions, create personal growth, and even improve your mental health. The key to effective journaling is not to merely use it as an emotional dumping ground, but to use expressive writing. Expressive Writing focuses on writing down your thoughts and feelings about emotional experiences.
Researchers have found that using expressive writing improves your working memory (1), reduces symptoms of depression (2, 3, 4), and reduces anxiety (5, 6). Interestingly, expressive writing also brings physical changes to your body. One study showed that patients with asthma and rheumatoid arthritis who wrote about the most stressful event of their lives showed more physical improvement and less deterioration than controls for both diseases (7). Another study showed that HIV/AIDS patients who wrote about negative life experiences displayed higher immune function (8). It also has beneficial effects on blood pressure (9) and several other health conditions.
How to Journal Effectively
Some people can just sit down and begin journaling effortlessly. However, many would enjoy some tips on how to get the most out of their experience. So, for those of you that would benefit from the information, here are some tips to help you in your journaling experience.
The first step is to make the time. Journaling is most effective when done regularly, whether you choose to write daily, weekly, or a few times a week. It is helpful to schedule time for it or work it into your daily routine. Some people get the most out of journaling in the morning or evening. Others find it valuable in organizing thoughts or processing emotions before a stressful event. If you are less of a planner and prefer to write whenever you get the urge, carry a journal or paper and pen with you so you can write whenever you want.
15 to 20 minutes is the ideal amount of time, but the important thing is to begin. So, if you need to start with writing for 5 minutes to get in the habit, then do what works best for you.
Since the key to effective journaling is utilizing expressive writing, it is helpful to understand exactly what expressive writing is. It is not simply moving your brooding and worrying from your mind to paper. Nor is it a dry retelling of events. Rather, it is expressing and describing your thoughts and feelings about an event or situation. This could help you understand them better, so you can use what you have written to find solutions and lessons to learn or identify the problems. Often, one writing session will not be enough to recognize patterns and solutions. In this case, after a few days of journaling, review all you have written and try to identify the information that you need to discover in order to move forward toward better health.
If you have no idea where to start, here are a few ideas to begin the writing process.
Describe something that happened today. Include the actual events as well as your thoughts and feelings about it.
Begin writing about things you are grateful for. Writing with gratitude has many benefits. It can take your focus away from the difficult aspects of life, improve your mood, relieve stress, reduce symptoms of depression (10), increase optimism (11), and even help you sleep better (12).
Analyze your performance in a situation or an aspect of who you are. Write about what you do well and what could be improved. While you do need to be honest, it is important to reflect on both the positive and the negative. Be careful not to allow it to become harmful to your emotional state.
Stream of consciousness writing is a great way to begin. Start by simply writing whatever words come to mind, even if it comes out in partial sentences or jumps between unrelated thoughts.
Journaling is about the process, not perfection. If you miss a day or two or ten, don’t beat yourself up or quit, just begin again when you are ready.
Your journal is just for you. No one else needs to see it. So be honest with yourself to gain the greatest benefit. Since it is private, you don't have to worry about spelling, grammar, or neatness. Just let your words flow freely.
Journaling doesn’t need to be done on paper. It is just as effective to keep an electronic journal on your computer or smartphone.
Some research has shown that journaling immediately after a traumatic event may be harmful rather than helpful. If you are trying to process trauma, it may be best to wait a month or two. Even then, if it is far too stressful, wait a month and try again. It can still be beneficial to journal about other things during this time, though.
There are many ways to manage stress, boost your mood, and improve your mental and emotional wellbeing. We have discussed the benefits and methods of spending time in nature and earthing, deep breathing, grounding techniques, and journaling. These, along with other lifestyle changes can greatly improve the way you respond to stress, preventing the many health conditions that can be caused by chronic stress. If you need help learning to manage stress and heal the damage that chronic stress has caused, please call us. Our lifestyle educators would be honored to partner with you so you can gain optimal physical health and emotional wellbeing.
Melynda has been practicing Family and Pediatric Medicine since 1995 as a Certified Family and Pediatric Nurse Practitioner. She is a compassionate healthcare provider who believes in caring for each patient in a unique, holistic and individualized manner. She specializes in Preventative and Integrative healthcare for the entire family and believes that educating her patients to prevent disease and promote health is of the utmost importance. She previously practiced in San Diego, California, and has enjoyed serving patients in her local community of Temecula since 2000.
1. Baikie, K. A., & Wilhelm, K. (2005). Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 11, 338-346. doi:10.1192/apt.11.5.338
2. Koopman, C., Ismailji, T., Holmes, D., Classen, C. C., Palesh, O., & Wales, T. (2005). The effects of expressive writing on pain, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms in survivors of intimate partner violence. Journal of Health Psychology, 10, 211-221. doi:10.1177/1359105305049769
3. Stice, E., Burton, E., Bearman, S. K., & Rohde, P. (2006). Randomized trial of a brief depression prevention program: An elusive search for a psychosocial placebo control condition. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45, 863-876. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2006.08.008
4. Krpan, K. M., Kross, E., Berman, M. G., Deldin, P. J., Askren, M. K., & Jonides, J. (2013). An everyday activity as a treatment for depression: The benefits of expressive writing for people diagnosed with major depressive disorder. Journal of Affective Disorders, 150, 1148-1151. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2013.05.065
5. Hasanzadeh, P., Khoshknab, M. F., & & Norozi, K. (2012). Impacts of journaling on anxiety and stress in Multiple Sclerosis patients. Complementary Medicine Journal of Faculty of Nursing & Midwifery, 2, 183-193.
6. Flinchbaugh, C. L., Moore, E. W. G., Chang, Y. K., & May, D. R. (2012). Student well-being interventions: The effects of stress management techniques and gratitude journaling in the management education classroom. Journal of Management Education, 36, 191-219. doi:10.1177/1052562911430062
7. Smyth, J., & Lepore, S.J. (2002). The writing cure: How expressive writing promotes health and emotional well-being. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association
8. Petrie, K.J., Booth, R.J., & Pennebaker, J.W. (1998). The immunological effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(5) 1261- 1272.
9. McGuire KM, Greenberg MA, Gevirtz R. Autonomic effects of expressive writing in individuals with elevated blood pressure. J Health Psychol. 2005 Mar;10(2):197–209. doi: 10.1177/1359105305049767.
10. Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist 60, 410-421. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.60.5.410
11. Froh, J. J., Sefick, W. J., & Emmons, R. A. (2008). Counting blessings in early adolescents: An experimental study of gratitude and subjective well-being. Journal of School Psychology, 46, 213-233. doi:10.1016/j.jsp.2007.03.005
12. Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 377-389. doi:10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2067