Coping with Change: Journal Write to Reduce Stress

An old adage that we’ve heard is, “The only constant is change.” (I googled the phrase to find the author, and it’s attributed to Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher from around 500 B.C. I thought that if we’re still quoting a guy who has been dead for 2500 years, there must be some truth and profundity in his statement.)

During the last year our world has changed very quickly:  in technology, in global weather patterns, in global economic conditions, and (if predictions prove correct) in United States politics. On a more personal level, many people are quickly losing sizeable percentages of their hard earned savings. Sadly, family and friends are losing their jobs as companies fail or downsize, and with the subprime mortgage crisis, many are losing their houses to foreclosure. And untold millions are losing all kinds of opportunities that they had been counting on.

If change is always a part of our lives, and right now the rate of change is so steep that we feel like we’re on a huge rollercoaster ride, then many of us are probably experiencing stress. I believe that journal writing may help mitigate some of the stress.

Writing — acknowledging and expelling those thoughts and feelings on paper or keyboard– is a step in the direction of coping with change, reducing one’s stress and worry. Rather than letting those thoughts and feelings roll around your body and mind, creating chaos inside and out, express them. Writing in a journal is a safe place to express yourself. James Pennebaker’s research has repeatedly shown that writing about meaningful events and feelings in one’s life increases the immune system, improves health, and reduces stress.

And sometimes writing is a cleaner way to initially express your fears than talking about them to a good friend or spouse: When you write, feelings are not ricocheting between speaker and listener. Unless you’re talking to a skilled or empathic or rational listener, the conversation can get sticky.

Once you’ve put your worries into words, you can look at them with a clearer head. But wait a day or two to re-read. As you review your writing, you might find some holes in the logic or your thinking. You might notice some areas where you have exaggerated a worry, fearing the worst, or areas for which you made assumptions and need to gather more information. It’s important to be able to try to see your worries, fears, solutions, and assessments objectively.

Next, reframe your point of view toward your stressful situation. Think of yourself looking at a scene through a telescope or binoculars. Now take two steps to the right and look through the lenses again. You see the same picture, but from a different angle. Now take three giant steps back. Are you getting a better sense of the big picture from these viewpoints?

Can you see any positives? Can you find the positive side of a difficult emotion: Rather than fear, can you see an exciting opportunity? Rather than feeling overwhelmed, can you re-frame the feelings as appreciating the richness, fullness, and complexity of the life you lead? By looking at your situation from different perspectives, can you make sense of it and find any greater meaning? Can you find any slivers of positivity, the cloud’s silver linings?

In his studies, Dr. Pennebaker found that writing about your worries helps foster problem solving. By writing about complex issues, you focus more fully on the subject, allowing yourself more time to really digest the problem and understand the complexities and nuances. After writing about the challenges, can you see the central features, the most relevant issues, and then summarize the issues? Can you analyze the issues and come up with a couple of plans of action?

Here is a list of several journal techniques that may help you express your emotions and possibly give you new perspectives. Click on the link to learn more about each of the techniques

1. Dialog is a conversation with the person, issue, or event to help you not only express your feelings, but also see them from different points of view (from the vantage point of another person, from the vantage point of the “situation” or “event”.)
2. Alternate viewpoint gives you a chance to take the point of view of the “other” and speak as though you were the other person or the element in the stressful situation
3. Unsent letter technique lets you express your emotions in a safe contained place.
4. Success and /or gratitude log helps keep you focused on the positives of your life.

So here’s one recipe for coping with change and reducing stress:

1. Gather the ingredients that are creating the stress: Write about the issue, your feelings and ideas about the situation.

2. Let the journal entry marinate a day or two and then reread it. Write more about the situation that is causing stress, if necessary.

3. Then, chop, mix, refine, and reorganize the entry so it’s clearer: re-organize it, re-frame it, and find a way to understand the situation better and see the issues clearer.
Make meaning out of the situation–analyze and explain what you can do to make the situation better. Can you also find a way to come to peace with the circumstances, so you can minimize the emotional component and maximize your rational thinking?

4. Then “serve” immediately, or chill, deciding on some plan of action: wait and see, talk to an advisor with all of the facts in front of you, research a particular issue where you need more information, and when necessary start again at step 1 and repeat as necessary.