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Stress Management - Have you tried Writing a Journal?

Whether you want to lose body fat, weight or gain muscle your body's ability to cope with and manage stress will impact your progress. Stress can come from many areas of life, personal, work related stress or even from training.

In this article we are coming at stress from a personal and work related perspective. By managing stress, our sleep improves, and sleep is the foundation for recovery and therefore health.

There are many ways to manage stress, in this article we are going to look at journaling and how it helped my client Emma.

*I've changed Emma’s name due to the personal nature of the full blog post'

When my client Emma started to miss a few training sessions, we delved into what was going on for her and how it was impacting her motivation to train. Emma’s stress levels were through the roof, she wasn’t sleeping, she was working extremely long hours and was understandably feeling too exhausted to train.

I recommended that Emma try journaling to help work through the things that were causing her to be stressed; she was quite cynical that it would help but was willing to give it a go!

Emma found that journaling helped her break down a very difficult and complex work situation that was causing her significant stress. She identified patterns that she’d been repeating over most of her career that have been holding her back and ultimately has not only got back to regular training but has (in her words) changed her life!

Emma has shared exactly how journaling helped her do this, even sharing pages of her actual journal with us! Click here to read Emma’s story…

“I thought journaling wouldn’t help me with my stress levels….I was wrong”

After a financially difficult pandemic and twelve months into a challenging work situation my client Emma’s* stress levels were through the roof. This was resulting in insomnia, overworking and having a knock-on impact on her training. I recommended trying journaling to work through some of her stressors; she was quite cynical that it would help but was willing to give it a go.

Here Emma explains how journaling helped her to overcome her stress and why she believes that it’s one of the most important and positive changes she’s made to her life.

’I've used a different name for my client throughout as she gets into some quite personal detail, including excerpts of her journal, to help give you real-life context

When did you start journaling?

I started journaling a few months ago after you suggested it might be a useful way of getting my stress levels under control. I have to say, I was pretty cynical at first but also willing to give anything a go that might help.

I wasn’t sleeping well, I was so stressed that I was starting to isolate myself from friends and family and I could feel my mental health slipping. I was pretty much up for giving anything a go at that point. I think if I hadn’t been in that level of need I’d probably just have shrugged the suggestion off because I was so unsure that it would help.

You say that you were cynical to begin with, what made you feel cynical about journaling?

Honestly, I imagined journaling to be like writing a diary…

“Dear diary, today I went to the zoo. It was good”

I couldn’t see how that would remotely help me but I soon figured out that I had journaling all wrong!

So, tell us a bit more about that…how were you wrong?

I’m a bit of a natural researcher so before I started I sought out people’s experiences online – what was it that made journaling work for them? How did it help them?

I discovered that there are different types of journaling – you can write entries like a diary if that’s what will help you, but I found that the idea of ‘reflective journaling’ resonated more with me.

With reflective journaling, its less about writing down the details of what’s happened to you that day and more about using writing as a way to coach yourself through specific situations, feelings or challenges.

If you imagine having a life coaching session, or seeing a therapist, they aren’t trying to solve your problems for you…they’re just trying to ask the right questions to get you to figure out the solution for yourself.

With reflective journaling – you’re posing the questions and writing the answers. You’re basically acting as your own life coach!

Can you give us an example that will help people understand what you mean? What was the main problem going on for you when you started journaling?

Sure, at the time I was struggling with a work situation – the leadership team had a particular style and culture that really jarred with me and it was making me feel very stressed. The person I reported into, in particular, had a style that did not work for me at all.

All of my peers felt the same, but while they seemed able to forget about it at the end of the day, it seemed to be hitting me much harder. I’d been in tears a few times and I felt under so much pressure that I was working crazy hours, often 14 hours a day, six days a week.

I was cancelling holiday because I felt I couldn’t afford to take it with the workload I had. I wasn’t spending much time with friends or family. I was skipping my training sessions.

I was exhausted mentally, physically and emotionally.

That sounds like a difficult place to be in, talk us through how you used journaling to help…

At first I felt like I just needed to brain dump – to get everything about the situation and how I was feeling out onto the page because it was all just whirring around in my head the whole time. I felt like I’d got to the point where I was hardly thinking of anything else, and I could feel how high this was keeping my stress hormones.

Even that simple step helped a lot, I had a better night’s sleep that night than I had in a long time just by effectively vomiting it all out on to the page! I didn’t try to edit myself – because the journal is just for me, I didn’t need to worry about writing in whole sentences or whether it made sense. I just got it all out there.

It felt very cathartic and also gave me some interesting initial insights. For example – one of the things I wrote down was that I had been in some similar situations before and that I was worried that this meant I just wasn’t cut out for the corporate world.

That became a really important clue for me – this wasn’t a one-off situation; it was a pattern. This felt like a thread that was worth exploring further.

That’s interesting…where did you go from there?

The next time I opened my journal I decided to explore this idea a bit further. I wrote down the questions:

§ What other roles have I done where I have felt similar to the current situation?

§ What was going on in each of these roles that caused me to feel very stressed?

§ What roles have I done where I have thrived?

§ What was it about those roles that meant I thrived?

I jotted down my thoughts about this and it quickly became clear that there were definite themes…

While the exact scenarios and circumstances of each of the roles I’d hated were different – they all made me feel the same way.

So, the circumstances became clear…but so did something else. After I’d written the list of what was going on in the roles I’d been stressed in, it seemed clear to me that objectively they were stressful situations – but what it didn’t explain is why these seemed to hit me harder than my peers?

Why did I push myself to extreme working hours when others didn’t in the same environment? Why did others quit and walk away, while I sacrificed my personal life and health trying to make it work?

That’s a critical insight. It’s one thing to understand that the situations you’ve been stressed in have common themes, and as an independent person it sounds like anyone would have found them challenging…but you go further to identify that you’re dealing with those objectively stressful circumstances in a way that isn’t serving you well…

Yes, it’s easy to identify the parts where you aren’t the one in the wrong! However, I knew that for this to be a pattern that has happened a few times I also needed to look at what I was doing that was contributing to the situation, or, if not contributing to it, was not helping to resolve it.

I tried to look at the situations as objectively as I could and list out the ways I was contributing to them. For example, I realised that when other people at work create problems or over-promise things, I take this on myself. I make it ‘my problem’ to fix even when it’s impossible to fix it. And then I work extreme hours trying to fix a problem I didn’t create because I can’t bear the thought of ‘failing’.

After asking myself some probing questions over a few nights of journaling I realised that a good summary of how I felt was:

“If there are problems, caused by other people (my manager), that could even remotely be associated with me, I will sacrifice my personal life and my physical and mental health to do whatever it takes to fix them. I will do this even if the problems are impossible to fix and the person that caused them constantly makes it worse or unfairly criticises me from the sidelines while I try to fix the problem they created. I will do this because if I don’t, I am a failure and that means I’m not good enough.”

This is pretty obviously insane once you read it in black and white, but that’s ultimately what I’d subconsciously been thinking and doing.

Did you uncover where that was coming from?

Yes, through doing the reflective journaling I realised that there were a few things going on that were linked to my childhood.

Without going in to lots of detail I had a difficult childhood in some ways and that is playing out by me holding myself to standards I would never expect of other people, feeling responsible for fixing problems that weren’t caused by me and ultimately to feel like ‘not fixing things’ is not an option, even if that means driving myself to work crazy hours or stick out a job I hate.

That sounds like a lot to unpick!

Absolutely. I had no idea when I started out that journaling was going to lead me to realise that issues from my childhood were causing these repeating, stressful patterns in a work scenario. You often hear of people playing out things from childhood in their relationships, but I think it’s less obvious that you might be playing them out in work…

I decided I’d probably got as far as I could on this specific problem myself and since this was causing so much stress and I could end up repeating the same thing again, it was worth investing in some 121 therapy to work through and resolve it once and for all.

I don’t believe I would’ve understood I needed this without journaling. I just hadn’t joined up the dots before without taking time out to reflect on things.

That’s what journaling is really about at its core – carving out time to reflect on important things in life. Without carving out this time, we’re so focused on continuing to run on our hamster wheel we don’t give ourselves the head space to check if we’re on the right wheel!

So, would you recommend journaling to others going through stressful times?

I would absolutely recommend it.

Working through this has helped me to set and reinforce some boundaries in my current role – I’ve stopped taking on responsibility for fixing problems that aren’t mine to fix. I’m also more able to see some of the unfair criticisms for what they are – my manager’s own coping mechanism of trying to push the stress to the next level down (i.e. me).

This means that I’m handling things much more like my colleagues. Yes, I’m still frustrated, but I don’t sacrifice my personal life and health trying to fix it and I don’t take it home with me in the same way I was.

Putting boundaries in place at work also means I now have time for all the things in my life that I know keep me emotionally, mentally and physically healthy like spending quality time with friends and family, carving time out for hobbies and, of course, my training in the gym which I find really helps me with my sleep and stress levels as well as keeping me active.

While I’ve talked here about the biggest issue I faced which ultimately led me to investing in therapy, I’ve been able to resolve a lot of other, smaller stressors and niggles on my own.

Reflective journaling has also helped me to be much clearer about who I am, my strengths, what I value and my direction in life.

It’s probably one of the changes that has helped me the most in life generally – and given that it’s free and takes very little time there’s no downside or risk in giving it a go!


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