The Z-Card

Not long ago, I was going through an extremely stressful period of my life. I was working long hours under immense pressure with people regularly telling me I wasn’t doing enough. As miserable as I was, I somehow managed to be the healthiest, physically and mentally, I have ever been in my life.

How was I able to do this, you ask?

A gratitude journal. (Among other things.)

I know, I know. I could hear your scoff from here. I used to be a scoffer, too. But I work in a high stress world, and I didn’t want to bring that stress home with me. Especially since, as a highly sensitive person (HSP), others’ stress often becomes my stress. Talk about a double whammy, huh?

I had the opportunity to hear from someone in my field who let his stress get the better of him. It made him miserable and it made his family miserable. So, he decided to do something about it. I learned a lot of tips from him, which I’ll likely share, but the most useful thing I learned was how to use gratitude to help with my stress.

One major way stress impacts me is during sleep. Sometimes I find it impossible to sleep, but more often, I wake up between 0100 and 0300 with something on my mind. It’s then difficult, if not impossible, to fall back to sleep. I talked to my doctor about ways to deal with this. He prescribed me a few different sleep medications, but it’s tricky to tackle that middle-0f-the-night insomnia. Plus, I tried one medication that helped me fall asleep, but didn’t keep me asleep, and when I woke up at 0300, I had sleep paralysis. I didn’t like that.

My colleague talked to me about what he referred to as the “Z-card.” If I’m being completely honest with you all–and I strive to always be–I didn’t listen to the first part of what he was saying, so I am actually not sure where he learned of the Z card, but I do know it was tied to someone who worked in the field.

The Z-card is essentially two lists. Take your card (or a piece of paper, we’re not strict here), and draw a vertical line down the center. Title the left size “Z” and the right side “G.” (That’s G for Gratitude. We’ll get to that.) Under Z, list everything that is on your mind. What’s bothering you? What’s keeping your brain from relaxing? This can be as simple as your irritation that you ate an entire packet of Oreo thins in one sitting, or as complex as injustice.

After you’ve listed everything that’s on your mind, and I do mean everything, move to the right side of the card. Now you will list everything for which you are grateful that day. This can, again, be anything. Sometimes all I have on the G side is that I enjoyed a nice cup of coffee that morning. The point is to have at least one thing on this side, no matter how small.

Take a look at one of my lists:

So how does this help you sleep? Well, remember above when I told you I didn’t listen to how my colleague got to the Z-card? In my pretty much blind Google research that involved search phrases such as “Z card” (there’s apparently some sort of credit card with that name?) and “Z sleep psychology stress theory,” I came upon the Zeigarnik Effect, a phenomenon first studied by Bluma Ziegarnik, in which your brain is more likely to remember something unfinished or interrupted. I feel fairly confident that Zeignarik is the name my colleague mentioned in his talk, but I’m not sure who actually developed the Z-card. (Maybe it was my colleague?)

Regardless, the Z-card works like this: By listing everything that’s on your mind under “Z,” you are telling your brain that that task is done, finished, complete. That means your brain doesn’t have to think about it anymore. It’s no longer an unfinished or interrupted task. Now, logically, we know that’s not always the case. If I write “cancel cable,” but don’t actually cancel my cable, I’ll still be paying for overpriced television. But our brains are both complex and remarkably simple. And the act of writing down “cancel cable” means my brain no longer has to hold onto that reminder, thus letting it relax.

The G side of the card helps us to build up resiliency to stress. We start small, with our cup of coffee, but eventually we can add something, “saw a nice sunset.” The positive effect of the G side is a little harder to identify. (You will see a positive effect from the Z side of the card almost immediately.) But stick with that G side, and I promise you, you will see a difference. I think it probably took me a few weeks, but I started to notice that, while I was not, by nature, a bubbly person, I was less stressed. Things that normally irritated me either didn’t irritate me, or irritated me less. If I was faced with a stressful issue at work, I was able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Where before I could only focus on how much I had to do, now I could say to myself, “You’ll get through this, it’s only a few days moments of misery.” I got to a place where a stressful event was only a speed bump rather than Dead Man’s Curve.

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