THE BLOG
11/07/2012 11:44 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2013

Put Your Stress Into Words

Three years ago I began my master's degree in positive psychology. My classmates and I, new to each other, were waiting for our first class to start. Everyone was a little anxious because one of us was about to be called on to tell their "You at Your Best" story about a time when we overcame a challenge in life. I sat in my chair, a big ball of stress and emotion. I had just burned out from seven years of practicing law, and I was not about to tell a room full of strangers about one of the most vulnerable moments in my life. Luckily, I did not have to recite my story in front of the full group, but I did have to tell it to a smaller group of six of my classmates. As I told the story of breaking up with my fiancé three months before we were to have been married, my voice became shaky, and I was nervous and uncomfortable. But the best thing happened when I finished -- everyone in the group reached out to give me a hug. In addition, they each took turns telling me about the strengths they heard me display in my story. I immediately relaxed and began to process the gratitude I felt. As the stress washed away, that moment gave me the courage to put myself out there by telling more stories.

Recently, USA Today reported that many employees who have experienced prolonged stress from job uncertainties, stagnant pay, and having to do more with less at work are actually burning out. A study out recently from ComPsych Corp. on job satisfaction revealed that 63 percent of workers say they have high levels of stress at work, with extreme fatigue and feeling out of control. In addition, 46 percent of the respondents cited stress and personal relationship issues as the most common reason for absences.

If you're one of the many millions of people who are in need of a break, putting your stress into words can have powerful positive effects. Here's how:

Encourage storytelling at work and at home. A recent movement called organizational storytelling is springing up in many companies. The goal is to make companies more aware of the stories that exist within their four walls and then leverage those stories to achieve organizational goals. As I discovered above, it feels good to talk about overcoming a challenge or doing something hard, and companies want to capture that too. Daniel Pink states, "There is a hunger for what stories can provide -- context enriched by emotion, a deeper understanding of how we fit in and why that matters." Stories can create positive emotion, goodwill, and strong social connection, and each one of those things not only builds your resilience, but also helps you de-stress.

Journal. The power of the written word in helping people de-stress can be profound. Studies by Drs. Laura King and James Pennebaker have found that whether someone is writing about a stressful life event or their hopes for the future, journaling may help to regulate your mood, possibly by providing a safe emotional outlet, giving you perspective; and creating hope for the future.

Here are three specific journaling activities you can try:

Write about what went well. Each day for several weeks, write down three things that went well for you that day and explain why. Human beings are programmed to focus on negative events and information, and this exercise will help balance that. For folks who made this a regular practice, a study showed that happiness seemed to increase and symptoms of depression decreased for an extended period of time.

Do a brain dump. This exercise may help people whose stress type causes them to be anxious and have a racing mind. I keep a small notebook next to my bed, and if a certain issue is preventing me from falling asleep, I simply write it all down and get it out of my head. The act of taking something from your brain and writing it down often may diffuse the intensity of what's stressing you.

Know your thinking blueprint. Your thoughts play a large role in your stress response. Drs. Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck developed a model to illustrate that the way people think about events affects how they feel and how they react. During the week, keep track of those events that push your buttons. Write down the heat-of-the-moment thoughts you had and your reaction (both how you felt and what you did). At the end of the week, check whether you found any patterns. For example, did you consistently put on your "angry glasses" at work, and did that undercut your performance? If you don't like what you see, replace your counterproductive thoughts with more productive thoughts, and you may see a shift in your emotions and reactions.

Storytelling and journaling are powerful tools to help you de-stress in your crazy busy lives. Managing chronic long-term stress will help you not only succeed, but also thrive, allowing you to both live and work at a sustainable pace.

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