Long-term stress is bad for you in almost every way. Stress decreases the amount of information you can hold in mind (what psychologists call working memory). Stress makes it harder to concentrate. It also has long-term health consequences and disrupts your ability to sleep.
Yet, there is a straightforward and simple remedy for stress that few people take advantage of: keeping a journal.
My colleague Jamie Pennebaker has done quite a bit of work on the role of a particular kind of journaling—expressive writing—on stress. When you experience negative events in life, whether at home or at work, those events stick with you. There is good reason to want to remember the bad things that have happened. Reflecting on those moments can help you plan for the future to ensure they don’t happen again.
But, if you keep thinking about them repeatedly (a process that psychologists call rumination for the word used to describe cows chewing their cud), those thoughts can provoke anxiety and stress. Over the long-term that stress hurts.
Writing about those events and how they make you feel can help. The idea is to keep a regular journal. When you have a bad experience in your personal or professional life, write about it a few times. When you write about it, describe the event in detail. Write about how it made you feel. Write about what you might do about it in the future. Devote 20-30 minutes to writing about events that really bother you.
In the moment, that kind of writing can be painful. At work, you might make a big mistake and then get chewed-out by your boss in front of other colleagues. Following that error, you might be angry with yourself, embarrassed at being yelled at, and even feel shame. When you write about that event later, you will re-experience a lot of those emotions in ways that won’t be fun.
But, the effects of this writing are powerful. They get a lot of those thoughts out of your head and onto paper. Your brain will not feel like it has to keep those thoughts rattling around in your head if you have already gotten them outside of yourself. In addition, the bad things that happen to you create little tears in the fabric of your life story. By writing about those events several times, you craft a story that knits the bad things into the narrative of your life. The more that these events become coherent to you, the less likely that they will be a source of later rumination.
By the way, you don’t have to keep your journal. The writing process is the active ingredient in this benefit of writing. If you write on paper, you can shred or burn the pages later. If you write on your computer, you can delete the files. Don’t feel like you have to keep the pages and read them later. That said, you may want to hold onto your journal for the long-term to look back on the aspects of your personal and work life that were sources of stress for you earlier in your life.
Over time, you should find that your stress levels go down. You’ll sleep better and be more resilient to the small things that can go wrong each day. Your relationships at home and at work will improve. On top of that, you’ll find it easier to concentrate at work—and that will help you get more done. Finally, with lower stress about problems that have happened at work, you’ll feel more confident to dive into new and difficult projects and to share your opinions with colleagues.