Identifying Causes of Short-Term Stress
Many of us experience stress in some form every day, whether it's caused by rush-hour traffic, difficult customers, a heavy workload, or unpleasant news. But, if stress goes unchecked, it can affect our productivity and, worse still, our health.
This is where keeping a Stress Diary can be useful. Going through the process of logging anxious moments allows you to pinpoint the causes of short-term stress in your life. Often, these stresses flit in and out of our minds, without getting the attention and focus that they deserve.
A Stress Diary can also give you an insight into how you react to stress, and help you to identify the levels of pressure at which you work best. (After all, a little bit of pressure can be a good thing!)
In this article, we explain what a Stress Diary is, and how to reap the benefits of keeping one. Mind Tools Club members can also download a Stress Diary template, to log your own experiences. The download includes a completed diary example and accompanying analysis, to show you how to use a Stress Diary in your own life.
What Is a Stress Diary?
The idea behind Stress Diaries is that you regularly record information about the stresses you're experiencing, so that you can analyze and then manage them.
As well as this, Stress Diaries help you to understand:
- The causes of stress in more detail.
- The levels of pressure at which you operate most effectively.
- How you can improve the way you manage stress.
You can download our Stress Diary template and accompanying worked example when you join the Mind Tools Club.
Using the Tool
Make regular entries in your diary throughout your day (for example, every hour), or after any stressful incident, and record the following information:
- The date and time.
- The most recent stressful event you experienced.
- How happy you feel now, using a subjective assessment on a scale of 0 (the most unhappy you've ever been) to 10 (the happiest you've been). Also, write down the mood you're feeling.
- How effectively you're working now (a subjective assessment, on a scale of 0 to 10). A zero here would show complete ineffectiveness, while a 10 would show the greatest effectiveness you have ever achieved.
- The fundamental cause of the stress (be as honest and objective as possible).
You may also want to note:
- The symptoms you felt (for example, "butterflies in the stomach," anger, headache, raised pulse rate, sweaty palms, and so on.).
- How well you handled the event: did your reaction help to solve the problem, or did it make things worse?
Analyzing the Diary
Once you've kept a Stress Diary for a number of days, you can analyze it and take action:
- First, look at the different stresses that you experienced during the time you kept your diary. Highlight the most frequent stresses, and the ones that were the most unpleasant.
- Look at your assessments of their underlying causes, and your appraisal of how well you handled the stressful events. Do they highlight problems that need to be fixed? If so, list these issues.
- Next, look through your diary at the situations that cause you stress. List ways in which you can change these situations for the better.
- Finally, look at how you felt when you were under pressure, and explore how it affected your happiness and your effectiveness. Was there a middle level of pressure at which you were happiest and performed best?
When you've analyzed your diary, you should have a better understanding of what the sources of stress are in your life, and you should be able to identify the levels of pressure at which you are happiest.
It should also be clear which types of situation cause you the most stress, and you can now begin to prepare for and manage them.
You'll likely reap the most benefit from your Stress Diary in the first few weeks of use. After this, you might find other approaches more useful (see Next Steps, below).
However, if your lifestyle changes and you begin to suffer from stress again, it may be worth using the diary approach one more time. You may find that the stresses you face have changed.
The next step is to get your stress under control.
Start by looking at the people and events that cause you the most stress.
- If a person, or a group of people, is causing your stress, our article, Dealing With Difficult People, can help.
- Does any of your stress come from disorganization, or from struggling with time management? If so, our quiz, How Good Are Your Time Management Skills? will help you to target the key skills to build.
- Our article on Job Analysis can help you to identify structural problems within your role that could be causing you stress.
- Is burnout contributing to the stress that you're experiencing? Our Burnout Self-Test can help you to identify and manage problems here.
Some stresses will be unavoidable, especially if you're in a job with lots of responsibility. Our article on Cognitive Restructuring can help you to reduce stress by changing the way that you think about things.
More Tips and Resources
- Listen to our Expert Interview, "Take the Stress Out of Your Life" with Dr Jay Winner. He offers some great tips for eliminating stress and putting more relaxation into your day.
- Use guided imagery during your day to relax and reduce stress.
- Consider taking a vacation. Although the people or tasks that are causing your stress will still be waiting for you when you get back, a vacation can give you enough distance to relax, recharge and come up with some effective solutions.
- Meditation can be very effective for dealing with stress, even if you can only meditate for five minutes at a time. Our article, Meditation for Stress Management, gives you simple techniques for meditation in the workplace.
- Are you getting enough sleep? Most people need seven to eight hours of sleep a night. A lack of sleep can affect your health and productivity, leading to higher levels of stress.
- Do you find it difficult to "switch off" at the end of the day? Learn How to Relax After a Hard Day.
- Our Bite-Sized Training session, Stress Busters, offers a comprehensive approach to dealing with stress. It outlines three strategies to combat stress, and provides tools for long-term stress management.
Stress can cause severe health problems and, in extreme cases, death. While these stress management techniques have been shown to have a positive effect on reducing stress, they are for guidance only, and readers should take the advice of suitably qualified health professionals if they have any concerns over stress-related illnesses, or if stress is causing significant or persistent unhappiness. Health professionals should also be consulted before any major change in diet or levels of exercise.
Stress Diaries enable you to identify precisely when you feel stressed, what causes it, and how it affects your work.
Analyze the diary to identify the most frequent and most serious stresses that you experience. Once you have identified your triggers and symptoms, you can take steps to manage and even eliminate stress from your life.
To keep a Stress Diary, download our template when you join the Mind Tools Club and make regular diary entries. Also, make entries after any particularly stressful events. Use the worked example as a guide when writing about your own life.
This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!