Monitor Your Stress with a Stress Journal

Certainly, one of the first steps in mastering your stress is knowing just how stressed you are. A stress journal can show you what’s triggering your stress right now and can measure your ongoing stress level.

A stress journal or stress log is one of the more useful items you can carry in your stress management tool belt. To effectively manage your stress, you need to become aware of when you’re feeling stressed and be able to identify the sources of that stress.

A stress journal can help you do just that by showing you very specifically when you experience stress and pinpointing the situations or circumstances that trigger those stresses. Your journal acts as a cue or prompt, reminding you that you should take some action and use one or more of the stress-management tools you’ve mastered.

By keeping a longer-term record of your daily stress, you’re in the best position to formulate a comprehensive stress-management program that can integrate various stress-reducing strategies and tactics.

Make your journal small and compact enough that you can carry it with you. A small notebook works well. Your journal’s form and format are less important than the fact that you use it on a regular basis. If you’re a high-tech kind of person, you can work your stress journal into your laptop, smartphone, or tablet. You can find apps that make your record-keeping easier.

How to record your stress

Here’s what someone’s stress log may look like on a Wednesday morning:

Day: Wednesday, November 6, 2013
Time My Stress Trigger (Importance Level) My Stress (Stress Level)
7:45 a.m. Couldn’t find my keys (2) Annoyed, upset (4)
9:30 a.m. Subway stalled for ten minutes (1) Annoyed (3)
11:30 a.m. Mail came; big credit-card bill (6) Upset, worried (8)
12:30 p.m. Given a deadline for project (4) Worried, anxious (8)

These are the four steps you need to make your journal as useful as possible, with each day on a separate page.

Step 1: Write down what’s stressing you

In the “My Stress Trigger” column, write down exactly what is triggering your stress. It may be an event, a situation, an encounter, or a problem. Be sure to also note the (approximate) time in the “Time” column.

Be brief in your trigger descriptions. You don’t need to relive the event; you just want to record that it happened. For example:

“I was so annoyed because I thought I had left my keys on the hall table. They weren’t there, and I had no idea where they were! What a pain! This is the third time this month this has happened. I need a brain transplant!”

becomes

“Couldn’t find my keys!”

Or consider this potentially stressful trigger:

“I was so upset when I got that flat tire on my way to the bowling alley. This was our big night. We were in contention. We could win the team title. That is, if Mable shows up. She’s the real star.”

becomes

“Flat tire on way to bowling!”

Similarly,

“OMG, my mortgage payment is overdue! Heck, where am I going to come up with the money?”

becomes

“Need mortgage money!”

Step 2: Rate the relative importance of the stressor

Next to your stressor description, rate the relative importance of that stressor on a ten-point scale like the one in this figure.

[Credit: Illustration by Wiley, Composition Services Graphics]
Credit: Illustration by Wiley, Composition Services Graphics

To help you get the feel of the scale, think of major life stressors that could happen or have happened to you — the death of a loved one, a major financial loss, a life-threatening illness, the loss of your job, chronic pain, and so on. These major, life-altering events are your eights, nines, and tens.

More moderate stressors may include breaking your leg, losing your wallet, having your car break down on the highway, and so on. Big deals, but not catastrophes. These are your fours, fives, sixes, and sevens.

Your ones, twos, and threes are the everyday hassles: being late for a movie, getting caught in the rain with no umbrella, encountering a rude clerk, and so on.

Be careful here. You aren’t rating how stressed you were about these events and situations; you’re just rating their objective importance as a life stressor. So even if you go absolutely ballistic and sulk for days when your favorite team loses a game, the trigger “losing a game” is still only a one or two in life. (Okay, if it’s a play-off game, maybe a three.)

Step 3: Write down what your stress looked like and rate your distress level

In the “My Stress” column, describe what your stress response looked like. Look at your emotional responses — worried, anxious, upset, fearful, angry, and so on.

Now rate the level of your distress about the stress trigger. Use a ten-point scale like the one in this figure.

[Credit: Illustration by Wiley, Composition Services Graphics]
Credit: Illustration by Wiley, Composition Services Graphics

Know when to record your stress

Now that you have the format down, you need to use it.

Don’t add more stress to your already-stressful life. Make keeping your journal easy so that you’re more likely to keep it up. Keep in mind that you don’t have to record every single stressor in your day. A few of the more important and/or recurring ones will do.

Note when you’re feeling stressed by becoming aware of negative emotional changes. Anxiety, worry, shame, upset, fear, and anger are usually a tip-off that you’re feeling stressed.

You don’t have to record your stressors at the exact time they occur. However, the sooner you make the entry, the more likely it will be that you recall what occurred and how stressed you were about that occurrence. Making the entry later in your day is still better than not making an entry at all.

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