I call it “rule-lined psychoanalysis.” Since grade school, I’ve been racing down thoughts on sheets of paper and, in later years, on blank computer screens. The act of journal writing has always brought me quiet contentment, but little did I realize the far-reaching health benefits that can stem from it.
Now, modern science is revealing the powerful healing effects of recording our thoughts. Recent studies of journal writing are finding that it not only helps relieve stress, release deep emotions and gain insights into the authentic self, but can actually help heal the physical body.
Journaling: Healing the Mind
It’s been said that “writing is an aggressive act because you are NOT leaving well enough alone.” That’s the underlying intent of journal writing—to NOT leave well enough alone. It’s a chance to delve deeply into things that are on your mind, and allow emotions about these matters to breathe on paper. In the process, you literally get to read your own mind.
“Life-based writing is one of the most reliable and effective ways to heal, change and grow,” says Katheen Adams, founder of the Center for Journal Therapy. “It creates a bridge between the past and the future.”
Its ability to heal the psychological side of ourselves is, perhaps, the most profound impact of journaling. It can help you reflect back to yourself who you are and, as a result, find answers within. Daring to write your own truth is immediately empowering, and the result is better emotional health.
Perhaps this is why the word “diary” derives from the Latin root for “daily food or allowance.” The act of tracking our experiences can serve as our daily ration of sanity, providing necessary sustenance for life’s complex journey.
Journaling: Healing the Body
Medical science began studying the therapeutic benefits of journaling in the mid-20th century, and since that time has discovered that capturing our human experiences in words is good for our physical health.
In the late 1960s, Dr. Ira Progoff—considered the “father of modern journaling”—created the Intensive Journal Method. Using this technique, he found that psychotherapy patients who recorded their fears and worries were able to deal with their specific problems more quickly than patients who did not.
During the 1980s, a number of independent studies uncovered that people who write about their most upsetting experiences not only feel better, but visit doctors less often and have stronger immune responses. Researchers found direct physiological evidence; for example, writing can increase the level of disease-fighting lymphocytes circulating in the bloodstream, and can cause modest declines in blood pressure.
Then, a giant leap forward in the field of journaling studies occurred in the late 1990s, particularly as the result of research published in the April 14, 1999 issue of Journal of American Medicine. The JAMA study was the first to examine writing’s healing effects on people who were ill; until then, investigation focused largely on healthy individuals.
The JAMA research included patients coping with a variety of chronic health concerns, such as asthma and arthritis. Participants were asked to journal 15 to 20 minutes per day for three to four consecutive days. Each patient was examined before the study, then two weeks, two months and four months afterward. During each exam, the asthma patients’ lung function was measured; and the severity of arthritis patients’ symptoms was measured using a standard scale.
At the four-month interval, researchers unearthed something startling: writing was actually improving physical symptoms of disease. For example, they found that asthma patients who wrote about experiences such as car accidents, physical abuse and divorce improved lung function by 19 percent, on average. In patients with rheumatoid arthritis, the experimental group showed a 28-percent reduction in disease severity. (Patients in the control groups who wrote about inconsequential things showed no improvements.) Overall, 47 percent of the experimental patients had what researchers described as “clinically relevant improvements” in symptoms.
The study concluded that writing about traumatic events helps a person come to terms with those events, which reduces stress. By altering the physiological stress patterns in the body, one’s health improves.
Getting Started with Journaling
So, what to write about, and in what format? Here a handful of ways to enter the journaling process:
- Personal Timeline: Write about a specific period of time or meaningful event in your life.
- Unsent Letters: Write a letter to someone (alive or deceased). Say what you’ve always wanted to say to this person. It is not necessary to actually send the letter.
- Body Dialogue: Talk with the part of your body that is in pain. Write both parts of the conversation; i.e., what would the pain say back to you?
- Core Self Dialogue: What terrifies you? What disgusts you? What is your biggest secret? What would you never do? What is your deepest wound?
Dreams: Write and interpret your dreams.
Travel: Take a notebook when leaving home; record all the sensations of places you visit.
Prompts: Start with a single word, phrase, poem, book passage, song lyric, or quotation from the Bible or other sacred text. Draw inspiration from these sources and write on.
Tips to Keep You Writing Toward Your Healthiest Self
- DO select a notebook or laptop carefully. Choose one that feels comfortable.
- DO create a calming atmosphere. Begin with a calming breath or simple prayer.
- DO date every entry.
- DO tell the truth.
- DO re-read what you’ve written. It’s in the re-reading that we tell ourselves what we know.
- DON’T edit yourself. Forget polish. The point is to dig deep into your emotions and translate them into words.
- DON’T limit yourself to one style of writing. Write poems, narratives, stream-of-consciousness, or create word/picture collages.
- DON’T be discouraged if you aren’t a good writer. The benefits can still be therapeutic.
- DON’T share your writing with others unless you feel confident you’ll be supported by that person. It can be devastating to share a journal with someone who is not in a position to receive it in the spirit in which it was intended.
- DON’T use journal writing as a substitute for medical care or psychotherapy, if needed.
Regardless of the format or rules you apply to your personal journaling process, writing can open windows into parts of yourself that may be awaiting a healing breath of fresh air. Because journal writing is inexpensive, easily accessible, not time consuming and requires no special skills and experience, you have very little to lose by giving it a try, and a lot to gain—including your most valuable asset of all, your health.
Gina Mazza Hillier is a freelance writer, editor, and author of a book on health intuition, “The Highest and The Best.” She writes chiefly on topics related to holistic wellness and meaningful living. Contact Gina at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.ginawriter.com.