A client sent me an email last week with an intriguing subject line: ‘We were right!’ – who could resist opening that message immediately? Caroline (not her real name) had sent me a link to an article entitled ‘To reduce stress and anxiety, write your happy thoughts down‘.
The piece is about a study of 71 people split into two groups: one group spent 20 minutes a day on 3 consecutive days writing about the best experiences in their life; the other group spent the same time writing about more neutral topics. The participants were asked about levels of stress and anxiety immediately before and after completing the work: the group writing about their happiest experiences reported a significant decrease in those levels. Four weeks later, they were still feeling markedly less anxious and stressed than prior to participating in the task.
The reason Caroline had sent this to me was that she had been engaging in something slightly similar since a coaching session we had a couple of months ago. Having noticed that she was becoming increasingly more stressed at work, she’d come to the session with the goal of finding ways of dealing with that stress. After spending some time unpicking the issue, she identified that the stress was relating to her perceived lack of control at work.
I asked Caroline to tell me about a time when she’d felt in control at work – she animatedly described a project she’d worked on which had been pretty tough but ultimately successful. After she’d finished, she said,
‘I’d forgotten how difficult that project was. I wasn’t leading it so actually I didn’t really have control over it but I didn’t let that get in the way. I just got on with it. It’s so good to remember that. How can I get that feeling back? I really need to keep that memory in the forefront of my mind.’
‘How could you do that?’ I asked.
‘I’m going to write it down. I have 17 minutes on the train each morning. I’m going to spend that time every morning this week scribbling down a few notes about times when I’ve felt in control and like I was making progress and succeeding at work. I’m going to remind myself how it feels and then take that feeling into the office with me.’
Anaïs Nin wrote ‘We write to taste life twice, in the moment, and in retrospection.’ By taking 17 minutes every day for five days to write, Caroline was reliving that positive experience where she’d felt in control and fulfilled in her work. She reported back that she’d been able to draw on those memories at tricky points in the day to help her combat anxiety and discouragement. She also noted that her colleagues had noticed she was more upbeat than she had been. It’s seven weeks since her week of writing and she’s still feeling the benefit.
Another interesting point Caroline made is that she’s been using a similar technique with her son who was rather anxious about starting at a new school. They spent some time together where he drew a picture of a time when he’d done something new and enjoyed it, even though he’d been a bit scared about it beforehand. Caroline stuck his picture on the fridge so that he could be reminded of that achievement on a daily basis.
Today’s pebble for you to ponder: will you take some time to see how writing about positive experiences could help you feel more positive?
Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching.
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