Sometimes I wonder how, when I was younger, I didn’t understand how stressful and complicated life would be when I got older. Perhaps it’s a generational divide, and feeling overwhelmed is a normal condition in our current world filled with social media, capitalism, and various other large and small disasters.
We text more than we talk, and we Google for answers instead of wondering with curiosity.
And looking in the mirror? Well, that’s not nearly as fun as selfies with magical filters that keep us perpetually pretty.
Then, there’s handwriting. I’m old enough to remember when essays in school were handwritten, graded in pen, and handed back in class.
What’s the point of all this waxing nostalgic? Well, I think it’s important to remember that in a world with technology and social media, perhaps it’s not such a terrible idea to go analog and enjoy quality time with ourselves through bullet journaling.
Bullet journaling when I feel overwhelmed
As someone who is a highly sensitive person, it’s easy for me to feel overwhelmed in the fast-paced, digital world I live in. As I write this, we’re still emerging from quarantine, and, if I’m honest, there are days when I miss that isolation. I still get groceries delivered instead of dealing with the stress of a grocery store, and I’ll gladly pay extra for online delivery of a home good instead of going to a big box hardware store. Tasks big and small, like creating a home you love, caring for relationships, and even self-care can be really challenging.
For those of us privileged enough to have a therapist, it can be one tool to prevent spinning out of control with anxiety. One thing that my therapist pointed out to me early on in our work has really stuck with me. It’s one of the reasons that I began journaling and faithfully journal to this day.
Why Bullet Journaling Helps my Stress
What my therapist told me about bullet journaling, and I now know now as a professional with a Masters’s degree in psychology is that long handwriting has a really powerful impact on how we think.
It slows down our thinking.
Because our hands move much more slowly than our brains can think, handwriting forces our thoughts to slow down. With slower thoughts, it’s easier to be mindfully present. At a slower, more mindful pace, then, our thoughts feel less overwhelming.
Physically marking progress matters. When we write out a task by hand, we get to physically see that task and then have the dopamine rush of crossing it off our list. In the case of a to-do list, this dopamine can actually give us the energy to accomplish more items on our to-do list.
It doesn’t have to be pretty.
At this point in the arc of social media, many of us eat, sleep, live and breathe an “aesthetic” – or, think we should be aspiring to do so. The truth is, life isn’t always pretty.
As I write this in my home office and surrounded by a rolled-up rug, vacuum, and a ladder left from my last DIY project. If I snapshotted my desktop, you think my workspace is put together, but, like my bullet journal on the pages I choose not to photograph, my home is a work in progress. My bullet journal has helped me learn to embrace just taking a chance on an open page and not hanging my hopes on each page looking perfect.
Bullet journals can be a stress management resource
While journaling itself can be stress relieving, you can also use your bullet journal to keep a list of activities that help you actively manage stress. Over time, as you learn more about ways to manage your stress, you can add to the list or edit things out.
In my stress management strategies bullet journal layout, I include the following:
- A reminder of my personal mantra
- A page of doodles demonstrating the ways I know to self-soothe and ground myself.
- A reminder of my boundaries and how I decide what problems are mine vs actually not mine to stress about.
- A list of songs about anxiety so I can relax while remembering that everyone feels this way sometimes.
- harm reduction strategies I learned through therapy (aka, how to do less harmful things when I want to do harmful things)
4 ways that bullet journaling has helped me manage stress
1. Bullet journaling is a self-care habit that feels manageable.
Personally, when I’m feeling overwhelmed, physical self-care can be really challenging. I feel more self-conscious and will avoid activities like going to a public yoga class or booking a massage. My bullet journal, however, is a private self-care practice. Because of that, I can manage even when I’m feeling overwhelmed at the thought of social interaction.
2. Bullet journaling helps me recognize my patterns
Often, things build up internally before we notice them. While it used to seem like I just woke up some days feeling triggered or having random anxiety. After I started bullet journaling, I was able to make connections in new ways. Even the shorthand notes about my days, the things that are on my mind, and my to-do list help me start recognizing triggers, noticing patterns, and being able to take a break or get my self-care before my stress boils over into total overwhelm.
3. Bullet journaling has developed self-compassion
As I mentioned above, bullet journaling has forced me to have realistic expectations for myself and allow myself to fail. Even though my feeds are full of lovely bullet journal layouts, I know that not every page is going to turn out great. Giving myself permission to fail has been really helpful. It helps me not to feel overwhelmed by the pressure of a blank page. Instead, I give myself permission to start and let it go wherever it will go. I can start over if I need to.
In the same way, managing my to do list in a bullet journal has also helped me be more kind to myself. When I write down all the things that I need to do, it helps them recognize just how overwhelming my to do list is often. Seeing that to do list written out actually helps me prioritize what’s the most important things to get done and give myself permission to let less important to do item list rollover to the next day, week, or month.
4. Bullet journaling helps me get more done
Even though I just talked about how bullet journaling has helped me prioritize tasks and forgive myself when things don’t get done.
The truth is that organizing my to do list, obligations, and social obligations in a bullet journal has helped me get lots more done. Before, when I was juggling all of these to do list items in my head, it was so easy to get overwhelmed. I would procrastinate the task I was dreading the most, like starting a big paper for grad school and let that discourage me from accomplishing anything on my list. Now, a few years into regularly bullet journaling, the process of writing a to do list out, prioritizing, and the little hits of dopamine from crossing things off helps me roll through a to do list with far more productivity.
Final thoughts on bullet journaling when I feel overwhelmed.
If you’re like me and you sometimes find yourself getting overwhelmed by all the things you need to manage in your life, there’s a good chance that bullet journaling can help you as well.
Bullet journaling isn’t right for everybody, and it can be a difficult habit to develop, however research is clear 1 that writing about stressful things can help manage stress. If you can adopt even some slight bullet journaling habits in a long hand written form, there’s a good chance that you can reap some of the benefits for organizing your life and having less stress.
- van Oorsouw, W. M., Embregts, P. J., Bosman, A. M., & Jahoda, A. (2014). Writing About Stress: The Impact of a Stress‐Management Programme on Staff Accounts of Dealing with Stress. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 27(3), 236-246. [↩]