Identifying Your Stress Triggers:
Keeping A Stress Diary

See also: Personal Development

An important aspect of controlling stress is to recognise the situations and/or people that cause you to become more stressed. Without this information, it is very hard to avoid stressful situations or people.

One very good way to identify your stress triggers is to keep a stress diary for a few weeks. This is particularly useful if you find that you are struggling to control your stress levels, or that you become stressed very easily.

This page discusses the process of keeping a stress diary, and how to analyse it to help you to identify stressful situations—and also those situations where you actually perform better with a little pressure.

Using a Stress Diary

A stress diary is probably most useful when you first identify that you are feeling a bit stressed, but you are not sure what is causing it.

You need to keep a stress diary for a few weeks, to ensure that you have probably encountered most of the obvious stressful situations.

If you feel that you can’t wait a few weeks, you can always use a tool like our quiz, What’s Stressing You Out?, which identifies micro-stressors that may be causing problems in your life.

How to keep a stress diary

  1. Develop your personal ‘stress scale’ from 1 to 10 where 10 is the most stressed you have ever been, and 1 is not really stressed at all. Try to provide an example for each level, so that you can compare how you feel with a ‘real’ example.
  2. Over the course of a few weeks, keep track of the things you have done, people you have met, and whether you have felt stressed.
  3. Write an entry in your diary every time you find yourself feeling stressed. Jot down the time, place and situation, what happened and why you felt stressed. Try to get to the root cause of the stress, and be honest about why you felt like that, and include as much detail as possible.
  4. Write down any symptoms that you noticed, such as headaches or feeling sick.
  5. Quantify your stress levels against your ‘stress scale’.
  6. Also quantify how effectively you are able to work or operate at that level of stress. Again, a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is ‘not at all effective’ and 10 is ‘maximally effective’.
  7. Finally, write down what you did, and the effect that it had on the situation.

Sometimes just keeping a diary can be enough to keep your stress under control. Recognising your emotions is a very good start to controlling them.

However, keeping a diary will also help you to identify stressful situations or people.

Analysing Your Stress Diary

Even if keeping a diary is helping you to keep your stress under control, it is still a good idea to do a bit of analysis to see if there are any obvious patterns.

At the end of each week, review your diary, and see if there are any patterns emerging.

Look for:

  • Situations or people that you found particularly stressful
  • The stressful situations that occurred most frequently.

Next, focusing on the most frequent and/or most stressful situations, look at your assessment of their causes. It may also be helpful to consider your assessment of how well you handled those situations. Can you pick out any common issues or problems that might need to be addressed?

Next, look at what you could do to improve the situations that are most stressful and/or most common. Write down ways that you could solve the problem, including what you could do to persuade others to change the situation.

Finally, take a look at your levels of effectiveness compared with your levels of stress. This may surprise you, because it may be that you actually need a little pressure to perform at your best.

Top Tip!

You may find that it is most helpful to use your stress diary in combination with a tool like our quiz What’s Stressing You Out? This will give you the best combination of your perceptions and feelings about your situation, and the reality of your day-to-day life.

Check particularly for any areas of strong agreement between the two (which suggests that these are serious stressors in your life) and also disagreement (which suggests that your perceptions may not match reality).

Where there is disagreement, it may be that adjusting your perceptions could resolve your stress levels.

Overall, at the end of this assessment, you should have a good idea of the most common causes of stress in your life, and also what situations stress you out most. You should also be aware of what level of pressure you are happy to work under.

This should, therefore, give you the tools and ammunition you need to make changes in your life to manage your stress levels.

Managing Your Stress

It makes most sense to address the stressors that occur most often in your life and/or cause you most stress.

  • A stressor that occurs often may not be very stressful in itself, but the sheer frequency of its appearance in your life is likely to be stressful. Stress is also cumulative, meaning that being exposed to multiple small stresses is just as stressful (if not more so) than experiencing a single large stress.

  • An event or situation that you find very stressful will inevitably be stressful, especially if you encounter it more than very rarely.

Focus your attention on the two or three ‘biggest ticket’ items. Look at your suggestions about how you could manage them. Now take that action!

There is more about how you can manage particular stresses in our pages on Avoiding and Managing Stress. You may also find it helpful to read our Top Tips on Dealing with Stress. Our page on Micro-Stressors also explains the impact of multiple small stresses and how to deal with them.

Keeping a stress diary is a good start, but only a start

It is important to remember that recognising your stress triggers, whether by doing a quiz on stress, or keeping a stress diary, is only a start. You then have to take action to address them.