Writing it Out: Journaling for Stress, Burnout, and Overwhelm

Not everyone who experiences high levels of stress appreciates the toll it can take on your physical and mental health. Often it takes a period of sustained stress for people to start to understand the implications for them. People who support those experiencing high levels of stress understand the implications of it. They know what it can do to your mental and emotional health, how it affects your physical health, and what the repercussions are.


Felling overwhelmed is a stress response that often stops us in our tracks. Leaving us feeling like you can’t handle your daily life, that it can lead to burnout and work issues, and cause problems with your relationships and personal life. Harmful stress, over time, will start to present itself somewhere in the body, for example as a skin rash or possibly illness.   


If this sounds like you, don’t just make it a habit where you go through cycles of extreme stress, holding out for the less stressful time. Find a way to manage the high stress in a constructive way so that your recovery time during lower stress periods is shorter. Over time this will also build your capacity for stressful periods and enable you to sustain longer periods of it.  One strategy to do this which has many other health benefits is writing about your stress i.e. journaling.

Journaling enables you to write out your stress and worry to then empower you to take control of your situation (and life) and stop hanging out for the stressful times to pass.


The Benefits of Journaling

Journaling is one of the best ways you can deal with stress. It provides you with so many benefits, irrespective of the method you choose. If you are looking for clarity, a brain dump (see below) will help you understand where your stress is coming from. If you are hoping to uncover patterns of behaviour relating to dealing with stress, a stress journal (see below) can help you with that. If you are wanting to actively manage your stress levels to prevent overwhelm on a regular basis, a journal prompt process (see below) can help you with that.


Journaling can help you identify your main stress triggers by reflecting on entries and identifying themes over time. Awareness of patterns of behaviour, is the first step to changing responses that may be exacerbating the stress. This awareness will provide opportunities for insight as to why these events are stressful not just when they are stressful. The more detailed you are in each journal entry, the more you will start to see similar patterns. It might be the same time of week, before or after payday, related to people in your life or personal relationships, or many other things.


And even more simply, it gives you a way to vent your worries and frustrations without worrying about burdening someone else with them, feeling like you are betraying yourself or others by sharing your thoughts and feelings.


How to Journal

All you need to journal is something to write with (pen) and somewhere to write it on (paper). It doesn’t require a special journal or magical ink. You can acquire that later!


Journaling is a flexible approach. It can be done for as long or as regularly as you need it to be. How you record your thoughts, feelings, experiences is up to you as long as you use a 'pen and paper'. Although mixing it up as to when you journal could be thought-provoking. You may also be surprised what can be achieved in as little as 5 minutes with journaling.


Journaling Strategies

There are three main journaling strategies; brain dump, which is a stream of consciousness; topic-based journaling, which focuses on a topic; and journaling prompts, which are used to surface thoughts that may be floating around un-acknowledged.


  1. Brain Dump


The brain dump provides a really easy way to get all those thoughts, worries, concerns, and ideas out of your head and onto paper. Through this process of acknowledging your concerns, you de-stress a lot, and may even surprise yourself with what is causing you stress and how many there are! The process of getting them all down non-judgmentally helps to provide clarity in your thoughts and worries, while simultaneously de-cluttering your mind.


Essentially a brain dump is writing whatever comes to mind, rather than typing it out on a keyboard. This is often referred to as ‘stream of consciousness’ journaling because you are just writing whatever comes to mind, without being concerned about organizing your thoughts. If your mind switches to a new subject, so does your journaling! Just keep writing until you feel like all the main thoughts are out on the paper.


  1. Topic-based journaling


Rather than journaling using a ‘stream of consciousness’ this type of journaling is on a specific topic e.g. stress, worry, grief or any other topic you might find useful. A stress/worry journal is used specially for relieving your stress. This is something you will write in when you are experiencing a lot of stress, experiencing a stressful situation or just trying to work through something. It could help you to consider the situation from multiple perspectives thereby organizing your thoughts on the situation. Often people who keep topic-based journals write whenever they experience the topic, rather than setting aside a specific time each day or week to journal as a result they keep their journal close by.

A topic-based journal often makes it easier to go back and find specific journal entries, and it can make patterns of behaviour and identifying stressors more obvious when reflecting back on periods of time or similar examples. The more detail you provide in this journaling style, the more helpful it will be to you when you reflect back on your entries.


  1. Journaling prompts


This is one of the easiest ways to start journaling. The prompts provide the focus for the conscious stream of thought and often can be done in as little as four minutes! This method is particularly helpful for people who feel they suffer from 'writer's block'. What needs to come out will reveal itself irrespective of the prompt. The purpose of the prompt is to get you started - what follows is up to you! To keep it simple, start with the same single prompt for a week or a month. You can use this one, 'When I reflect on my day, I am reminded...'. The key is consistency.  

You can also buy journal prompt diaries which have a prompt a day. However, I would recommend you don't let finding a suitable prompt diary prevent you from getting started. 

As you become more familiar with the journaling process that you prefer, the insights will become more frequent and the benefits more rewarding.



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