I recently graduated from University and as part of my undergrad degree, I completed two counselling modules. I also experienced a lot of stress. Little did I know early on how valuable those few hours of counselling reading would be to me over the coming years; and now I’m going to share what I’ve learned with you.
Part of the personal development process of training to be a counsellor involves keeping a diary and engaging in reflection. Reflection is the practice of exploring and examining an experience, an emotion, clarifying meaning and understanding, and changing perspective of oneself and those experiences (Smith, 2016). Predominantly, I do this through reflective writing, although I have known others to keep visual journals through photography or sketching and some created video blogs. Reflective writing is not just keeping a diary; today I did this and tomorrow I’ll do that. It’s about thinking over your day, the way you felt about it then and the way you are feeling about it now. Learning about yourself and acknowledging yourself, warts and all. Gaining clarity, self-awareness, and expressing yourself (Wright, 2005).
Going to university is not simply about getting a qualification. Part of it is personal development and it happens every day, often without you realising. Making new friends, learning how to live with new people, managing your time, developing relationships with tutors, figuring out who you are, and what you want from your life. Maybe having your heart broken. Feeling under pressure, homesick, lonely, or afraid. Reflective writing can be hugely beneficial throughout it all by providing a safe place for you to vent your feelings and think about your experiences. I found it to be like having a conversation with myself. Stress is a part of university life too; I know it was part of my university experience. Stress can be helpful. It can motivate us. However, stress can also be overwhelming and when this begins to happen it can affect our sleep, appetite, concentration, relationships and academic output (Emond et al, 2016; Ahrberg, Dresler, Niedermaier, Steiger & Genzel, 2012; Sohail, 2013). In the case of studying at university, the stress is not going to go away, so as students we have to try and manage it as best we can. I can put up my hands and admit I am no guru when it comes to stress management, but I can attest to the potential of reflective writing as a management tool because I have found it to be genuinely helpful.
Constructive Vs Unconstructive
There is, however, some care to be taken over the way that we use reflective writing as a tool to manage our stress. Hoyt, Austenfeld & Stanton (2016), identified two functions of expressive essays; constructive and non-constructive. Constructive essays contained planning and problem solving as a means to manage experiences, whereas non-constructive essays leaned more towards documenting and re-living worry. Hoyt, Austenfeld & Stanton found that constructive expressive essays predicted a decline in depressive symptoms for the participants of their study. This is in line with research about emotional regulation. By regulating emotional responses to stressful experiences, we can buffer the impact that stress can have on our emotional health (Stanton, 2011). By engaging in an active effort to embody stressful experiences, and making attempts to understand our emotions, reflective writing can be an aid for emotional regulation and therefore help to buffer stress. A less beneficial way to use reflective writing is to document everything that is wrong and then blame and degrade ourselves over and over. This will no doubt make us feel worse, and we don’t want that.
Of course, it’s not going to be for everyone. Coleman & Willis (2015) reported that reflective writing was found to be daunting by some students. In the case of students required to reflect as part of their course, assessment of their accounts lead to a watering down of their expression for fear of judgment. Admittedly these are things that crossed my mind too. However, keeping a private journal strictly for my own benefit can avoid this fear. And for those who find the idea daunting, too ‘feminine’ or time consuming, try a bullet pointed list of the tasks at hand, break them down into manageable chunks and make attempts not to over load your day with tasks. Just seeing it all written down can help to organise yourself and reduce some of the stress.
If a diary seems too literal, perhaps the more abstract and creative nature of poetry will be of interest to you. Poetry has a reflective and symbolic element involving the use of storytelling and metaphors (Collins, Furman & Langar, 2006) which can be useful when one is not quite sure how to pin down one's emotions, but we are quite sure of our feelings. Poetry has been recognised as having therapeutic benefits in many disciplines: nursing, social work, and academic settings. I have even used it as the basis of a workshop helping people experiencing mental distress to find ways to express themselves, as a tool to aid their recovery. Mohammadian et al (2011) used a poetry therapy intervention with a group of university students and found that it reduced signs of stress as well as depression and anxiety, enabling them to express emotions freely. Similarly, Coleman & Willis found poetry writing gave students a freedom for expression and personal satisfaction which the more formal structure of reflective writing did not offer them. Something to think about.
Take home message
However you do it, whether it’s writing a reflective journal, keeping a photograph diary, a video blog or just setting aside some time to really think about how you feel, acknowledging feelings is key. Think about your stressful experience and your reactions to it. If there is a way of managing the situation, perhaps by contacting a tutor or adjusting your work load, reflecting can help you to identify those possibilities. Next time you feel overwhelmed, grab some paper and have a conversation with yourself about it.
Sophia Fedorowicz is a psychology student from Stoke-on-Trent with an interest in mental health and research dissemination. She is beginning an MSc in Applied Research at Staffordshire University but her long term goal is to become a clinical psychologist. She loves ridiculous reality TV shows, eating large amounts of sweet potato and connecting with like-minded people. Her Twitter page is: @FedorowiczS and her blog can be found at: psychologysoph.blog
Indicator 2.3.1 of the Student Wellbeing & Mental Health instrument of the ProtectED Code of Practice requires member universities to promote good wellbeing and mental health to students at key points throughout their studies.
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