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How Journaling Keeps You Healthy


Studies show writing about traumatic events helps you recover and move on.  Here's how.

When James W. Pennebaker, M.D., faced a stressful time in his marriage, he began journaling.  "There are dozens of features to a relationship," he says.  "Journaling helps to slow things down and put them in perspective."  Journaling helped him understand what he wanted and what he valued and the marriage survived.  After recognizing journaling's healing effect in his own life, Pennebaker, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, began wondering if he could scientifically test the concept of journaling to discover what, if any, impact it had on health.  Through his studies, Pennebaker learned what many writers have known since they first put pen to paper: Journaling is good not only for the soul, but for the body as well. Pennebaker's first studies, in the late 1980s, examined healthy people and journaling.  His research concluded that by writing about the most traumatic event in a person's life, the participants stayed healthier than those who wrote about mundane topics, such a describing a room.

The Self-Medicating Pull of a Pen

Now scientists are beginning to prove that people with illnesses benefit from journaling, too.  Joshua M. Smyth, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at North Dakota State University, published a study in the April issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association showing that 47% of patients with asthma and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) improved after writing about the most traumatic event in their lives.  In the control group, who wrote about everyday topics, only 24% improved.  Smyth and Pennebaker had cooperated on studies of healthy subjects, but with this study Smyth was the first to look at journaling and its effects on patients with chronic illness.

While many people who journal on a regular basis do so because it makes them feel better, until recently there hasn't been any scientific evidence to prove it.  "It would be interesting to know the science of how journaling is connected to the body," said Nancy Linnin, who lectures on writing and health at the Canyon Ranch Resort and Spa in Tucson, Ariz.  "I haven't found one person who said it [journaling] didn't help them."

Journaling helps writers get rid of whatever is troubling them.  "It's getting a weight off your shoulders and how can that not be helpful? says Lauren B. Smith, editor of the literary journal Messages from the Heart, which emphasizes letter writing, poetry and journaling.

"Journaling slows you down.  It's a whole body experience.  When I journal, it's not coming from my head, but it's connected to something beyond my head.  It comes from the gut," says Linnon.

Pennebaker and Smyth agree, but they admit they still don't know exactly why journaling heals both the body and soul.  "This study [on patients with asthma and RA] is very encouraging, but it's only a single study.  It begs to be followed up," Smyth says.  Both are conducting further studies on what specific effects writing has on health and how writing improves the immune system.]

Smyth and Pennebaker caution that it's not just any writing that helps you stay healthy.  What you write and how you write it determines success.  For example, Smyth says many people who use a diary simply record events without examining how those events impact their lives.  Writing continuously over a period of several days about a stressful event provides the best results.

In their studies, participants wrote for 15-30 minutes on four consecutive days about the most traumatic events in their lives.  Writing continuously about a problem allowed the participants to thoroughly examine the event and how it affected them.

Whining Will Get You Nowhere

Findings in Pennebaker and Smyth's studies show participants who simply spent their time whining about their lot in life had little or no health benefits.  In contrast, those who used the writing time to examine the event and put it in perspective had the best results.  In one study, Pennebaker cites a woman who was molested when she was 9 years old.  At first, her writing concentrated on her embarrassment and guilt, then moved to anger at the boy who had molested her.  By the last day, the woman had begun to put the event in perspective: "Before, when I thought about it, I'd lie to myself. . .Now, I don't feel like I even have to think about it because I got it off my chest.  I finally admitted that it happened. . .I really know the truth and won't have to lie to myself anymore."

Smyth observes the same thing with those who submit letters to her journal.  "people have to stick with it," she says.  "I get the first page and it's pure anger or frustration.  They need to get beyond the emotion and discover a better understanding.  They need to find the ending of the process."

Pam Hale Trachta, owner of Through a Different Lens, a consulting business, agrees.  "When I journal, or when I teach others to, I strive not to be intellectual and logical and 'articulate,' but to feel the wave, the energy behind an event and to summon images of what that wave feels like, acts like, what it's saying to me and what I would say to it."

Developing a deeper understanding of the event and the emotions it generates helps the brain digest the information. Pennebaker thinks when you analyze a traumatic event your brain turns it into a story that's stored more easily.  "Storytelling simplifies a complex experience," he says.

Turning the memory into a story can be painful at first and both Smyth and Pennebaker report that patients often feel worse when they first begin journaling.  It can take weeks or months to notice an improvement.  the RA patients, for example, didn't show any improvement for four months.

Writing in a Healing Journal

Journal writing about traumatic events can be difficult and time consuming and should be done very carefully.  Writing about the worst events of your life can dredge up strong emotions and healing doesn't necessarily follow.  For example, journaling therapy doesn't seem to work by itself with people who are severely depressed or who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.  Smyth suggests notifying either your health care professional or someone close to you before you attempt this exercise.  Let them judge if it's helping or hurting you.

Also, keep your healing journal private.  It's okay to tear up the pages or burn them once you've written about the event.  Showing them to anyone who isn't a therapist or health-care professional could make matters worse--it could be very dangerous for a battered woman to show the pages to her spouse, for example.

Journaling therapy should never replace a doctor's care.  All study participants received the best medical care while they journaled, so take that as your cue to do the same.  Discuss your desire to try writing through emotional pain in a private journal with your doctor and let him or her in on your progress.  Just like millions of other writers throughout the centuries, you may happily find that the pen has a healing touch.

Doctor's Orders

According to the experts, how you write in your journal can have a significant effect on the benefits you'll receive.  Remember to:
  • Write for yourself
  • Write about all the emotions assiciated with the event.
  • Set aside 30 minutes at a regular time for three or four days in a row when you won't be disturbed.
  • Explore how the topic relates to other aspects of your life, such as your childhood and relationships.
  • Write continuously and don't think about spelling or grammar.

Journaling Sites

The Center for Journal Therapy

According to Kathleen Adams, founder/director, the Center for Journal Therapy is a gathering place for those who know the power of writing for growth and healing. The Web site offers books, tapes, workshops and a resource center with information on journal therapy.

Whole Heart Publications

A resource site for journalers, Whole Heart includes a bookstore specializing in writing, journaling and learning books. The site also holds threaded discussions on journaling.

Healthy Living's Message Board

Start your own online journal right here in our message board.

What is a Journal?
A writer and member of Healthy Living helps you discover the joys of journaling.

Journalling Software

The Journal 2.41 - Keep your private thoughts and insights conveniently safe from prying eyes.

My Personal Diary 8000 - Easy to use organizer with many features that are sure to impress all

Both of these journals allow you to password protect your entries.

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