How to heal with journaling

Not a writer? You can still use a journal to create your own masterpiece, and the words will be yours. Finding your own words is important in life. Sometimes, if you trust someone deeply, you will let them hear the most private of these utterances. At other times you can’t express these feelings to anyone because the right words aren’t there. Keeping a journal helps you identify and work with your feelings. Through this you can communicate with greater clarity. Yet the benefits of keeping a journal don’t end with effective communicating. In fact, that’s just the beginning.

The physical effects of journaling

I’ve always intuitively known that writing was good for me. I started keeping a diary at age nine. I would write about what happened on the playground, who was hogging the slide and how unfair it was that my mother wouldn’t make us pancakes for dinner. Writing down these troubles made them feel erasable. My nine-year-old problems seem silly in retrospect and in 10 years time the trivialities I journal that loom large now will diminish. This isn’t the point. What bothers us matters and, since even our closest friends are sometimes deaf to our concerns, it’s important to have an alternative source to disclose to.

Why bother? Modern science has given us ways to measure everything. In 1988, a pioneering study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that writing about what bothers us can improve our health. Researchers for the study profiled 50 American undergraduate students and assigned them randomly to two groups. One group spent 20 minutes on each of four consecutive days writing about traumas, while the other group wrote about trivialities. The researchers found that those who wrote about their traumas, which were as minor as family quarrels, were significantly healthier afterwards. Despite making no other changes to their lifestyle, their immunity, blood pressure and lung function had improved. In addition, at a three-month follow-up it was found that subjects who wrote about their traumas were significantly happier than those whose writing was non-emotional.

Journalling can ease the stress of upcoming events. Stephen Lepore, Associate Professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, found that students who wrote expressively about their emotions before an exam experienced less mental distress. This was despite having the same number of disruptive thoughts as those who wrote about superficial things.(2) Why is this? The simple act of writing dulled the power of their problems to cause them upset. (This ease under stress can also be developed through a meditative practice known as vipassana meditation, or insight meditation, whereby you observe all thoughts without emotional reaction.)

Considering the connection between stress and immunity is clearer every day, this isn’t surprising. But can the stress-reducing impact of journalling reduce pain? Can it heal your lungs? A study published in 1999 in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that "patients with asthma or rheumatoid arthritis who wrote about the most stressful experiences in their lives experienced a reduction in symptoms … these gains were beyond those attributable to the standard medical care that all participants were receiving."

In this study completed by 107 patients with either asthma or rheumatoid arthritis, 70 of them wrote about the most stressful events in their lives; the writing was undertaken for 20 minutes straight over three consecutive days. The other 37 patients (the control group) wrote about their plans for the day. Four months later, 47 per cent of the group that wrote about past traumas showed clinically relevant improvement. The patients with arthritis showed a 28 per cent reduction in symptoms, including less pain, and greater range of motion. Those with asthma also fared well, increasing their lung capacity by 19 per cent. Even writing about trivialities was healing, as 24 per cent of the control group who wrote about emotionally neutral topics also showed improved symptoms.

What makes it work?

Jornalling works on the link between stress and disease. It’s less direct than, say, a red-faced temper tantrum ending in a heart attack. The negative effects of stress are cumulative. Imagine your body is a piggy bank. If you feed this bank with the currency of stress, eventually it will overload it and cause it to burst. But before it bursts it will crack. In people, these "cracks" can take the form of emotional, mental and physical problems. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), symptoms of stress overload include sleeplessness, indigestion, diarrhoea, nausea, unexplained aches and pains, skin problems, sense of humour failure, moodiness, difficulty making decisions and disorganisation.(4) By identifying these "cracks" you can patch them up before your health shatters.

Journalling helps you see stress through new eyes. Whether stress is imagined or real, your body reacts by triggering the fight-or-flight response. This is your body’s attempt to prepare you for either option. Stress hormones are triggered and extra glucose is pumped through the bloodstream. This is an energy-draining reaction that’s meant to help you respond to genuine danger. Since this physical reaction depends on how you emotionally process things, it’s essential to keep things in perspective.

Say you have a crippling fear of spiders, a common phobia known as arachnophobia. Seeing a spider will likely trigger the fight-or-flight reaction regardless of its actual threat. The flight part of you will want to run away while the fight aspect is challenged to kill the spider or usher it outdoors. Journalling about this upset helps ease its emotional power. As with the students who improved their health by writing about emotions and trauma, writing about your fears will help you work through them. This will reduce them and their ill effects.

Physical expression and health

The body and the mind work together. While it’s wonderful to work with emotions, it’s important to release physical toxins manufactured by our psychological stresses. Journalling is more effective when integrated with other natural healing methods. Exercise is an essential tool in the war against disease. The fight-or-flight reaction needs physical expression or the chemicals it creates will produce toxic byproducts. You can stop this. When these feelings arise, you can sweat the toxins out through physical exertion. Interpretive dance is an especially powerful method, as it combines emotional outpouring and bodily release.

The emotional effects of expression

Appearances can be deceiving. To the untrained eye a journal looks like a bunch of papers full of thoughts and dates. We who’ve worked with it see it differently. We are able to understand that those thoughts do more than sit on paper; they initiate sedation and reflection.

Sometimes you can be surprised by what you write. You can discover facets of yourself that you hide from other people. Your journal allows you to transfer these thoughts from mind to page. No longer are they subconscious, sneaking around the corners of your mind. They bloom into reality.

For example, a few months ago I slowed down on my household chores and hobbies so I could concentrate on my inner development. It wasn’t long before dishes piled up and my paints were drying beside my spotless canvas. I started to feel like I was lazy and became quite impatient with myself. A few days later, I was reading through my journal. In almost entry I mentioned some type of exercise and I realised some of the things I did that didn’t seem physical at the time — like cleaning the bathroom — took quite a lot of energy. Reading this helped me see how busy I’d been. I recognised I was not lazy at all. Sure, a good friend would explain this to me, too, but at the time my closest human confidants were unavailable. This happens to all of us sometimes. Keeping a journal allows you to rely on yourself for insight, which is empowering.

Journalling provides new insights into the true you. Although the subjects you start writing about tend to be what has bothered you most throughout the day, these will segue into other similar problems or experiences. This helps you identify what’s at the core of your problems. At times, a theme will emerge. My journal has helped me realise when I’m doing the same thing but expecting different results or reacting in a way that doesn’t work. Having your actions in print helps you see them and the situations they’re rooted in more clearly. Sometimes this self-awareness is uncomfortable. However, as with the painful strides that precede a second wind when running, the results are well worth it.

Writing down your private thoughts takes courage. This pushes hidden issues into the spotlight. If you don’t keep a journal you may think this makes them loom larger. Actually, it reduces them. Once they’re in the light, you see the shadow they cast is larger than they are. If there’s something you hate to think about, simply write it down and its effect on you will fade. If you write down a memory of something you feel bad about, along with what you were thinking and what was going on in your life at the time, usually you see that you did the best you could at the time. We all make mistakes. Keeping a journal helps us move forward by resolving deep guilt.

Creative journaling

We’re all different. The conventional date/event "dear diary" style isn’t for everyone. You can alter this greatly or with subtlety. Robert Chris Martin, Professor of Psychology at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, suggests keeping journals for different facets of life — school, job, emotional, relationship, family.(5) This style allows you to isolate where major changes have occurred. The method also works with a single journal. All that’s needed is different sections on each page.

Rather than simply reflecting on different life aspects, you can use a journal to improve these. This is the focus of a goal achievement journal. This is essential for personal goals. Identifying a goal and writing about your progress helps you stay objective. Noting both the negative and positive areas of the goal-achievement process allows you to reflect on what you’re doing right and fix where you went wrong without the mocking of your competitors. Putting your strategy in writing lets you clearly evaluate how effective it is at fulfilling your desire. You can keep multiple goals in your journal, or if the goal is significant, you may select a solitary journal to commemorate your path.

Not interested in reflecting on daily events? Perhaps you’d prefer to write down nightly ones. A dream journal gives you access to your subconscious mind. You don’t have to be a dream expert or even knowledgeable about dreams to benefit from this exploration. You just have to be consistent. You need to keep your dream journal by your bed or sleeping area with a pen beside it. Immediately on waking, record every detail and impression. The longer you wait, the more likely the memory will dissolve.

Writing these down can trigger an "aha!" moment. Roger Hiemstra, Professor of Adult Education at Elmira College, New York, says: "I tell a student who is really struggling with some particular concept or subject to consider keeping a dream book or log for a while as a means of obtaining new insights." Dreams can also help us integrate subconscious and conscious. States Hiemstra: "Subsequent analysis of those dreams can lead to interpreting how the subconscious might be directing or impacting on the conscious."

If you don’t like to write, you may prefer to keep an art journal. With this, you can speak through images. Don’t be intimidated by the word "art". Anything visual will do. If the image is meaningful to you, put it in. It can be abstract smatterings of colour, symbols, even a cutting from a newspaper. As time goes by, you’ll be able to see what these images represent in your life. Any book will do, but if you’d like to do collages, choose a large spiral-bound book. This allows for expansion. Rough paper enables you to do watercolour. If you’re blending art with writing and doodles, make sure you use a waterproof marker or artist’s quality pen. Alternatively, paint on a separate piece of paper, wait until it dries and then cut and paste it in.

You can also use art to enhance your regular journal. Placing small symbols beside entries or highlighting words in the colour that seems appropriate allows for greater self-expression.

Poetry therapy

A journal holds more than details of your day. It is a sacred vessel in which to pour deep feelings. This can be done in many forms. Artwork, doodling and cutouts from magazines can also help you express your emotions. For those who’d like to explore other ways of working with a journal through words, poetry therapy is available. This talent for wordplay has been studied as a method of self-healing since the 1960s. Today, a degree in this field takes two years. If you can’t work with a certified poetry therapist, you can find a person who has equivalent experience but isn’t certified. Or, if you prefer, you can work more privately. There are books that deal in depth with poetry and writing therapy. In the meantime, try the following.

Consider Laughing Song by English poet William Blake (1757-1827):

When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy,
And the dimpling stream runs laughing by;
When the air does laugh with our merry wit,
And the green hill laughs with the noise of it;

When the meadows laugh with lively green,
And the grasshopper laughs in the merry scene,
When Mary and Susan and Emily
With their sweet round mouths sing "Ha, Ha, He!"

When the painted birds laugh in the shade,
Where our table with cherries and nuts is spread,
Come live & be merry, and join with me,
To sing the sweet chorus of "Ha, Ha, He!"(7)

Write about laughter. What kind of things do you find funny? What kind of things do others find funny that you don’t?

What comedian do you find funniest? Which one bores you, irritates you or makes you uncomfortable?

Write a poem using these lines from Blake’s poem as a format:
When the green woods…
When Mary and Susan and Emily…
Where our table…
Come live and…

Keeping it personal

Like a diary, the more intense and emotion-packed your journal is, the more you’ll want to protect your privacy. This can be done through different ways. The lock-and-key tradition is time-honoured or you can store it in a box with a code word on it, like "old clothes". The code word method is also effective if you keep an online journal.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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