In this blog I present some of the fascinating research on writing as a health-improving process, and give you some top tips for journaling for well-being.
Journalling through history
From the late Renaissance until the present day there have been many notable diarists. From Samuel Pepys to John Evelyn, Fanny Burney the 18th Century novelist, and Anne Frank during the second world war. Numerous anonymous journals kept by monks and nuns have documented their lives and the times in which they lived.
In the 20th and 21st Centuries, diarizing, as a daily or periodic act of therapeutic processing has not only been championed by well-being gurus, but also been researched by academics.
Immunological benefits of writing
As well as the direct psychological benefits recorded from writing as a form of therapy, there have been a number of studies documenting writing as beneficial to the immune system.
It may be that externalizing emotions and thoughts in its self is beneficial. Since we now know that thoughts can affect the chemistry of our body as a whole and individual cells (Bruce Lipton’s studies), it’s perhaps less surprising that an essentially psychological approach might help immunity. Reducing mental and emotional stress, and the hormones and neurotramsmitters that come with it, is plausibly beneficial to our overall health.
A ground-breaking study of writing’s physical effects appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Vol. 281, No. 14). In this study, led by Smyth, 107 asthma and rheumatoid arthritis patients wrote for 20 minutes on each of three consecutive days–71 of them about the most stressful event of their lives and the rest about the emotionally neutral subject of their daily plans.
Four months after the writing exercise, 70 patients in the stressful-writing group showed improvement on objective, clinical evaluations compared with 37 of the control patients. In addition, those who wrote about stress improved more, and deteriorated less, than controls for both diseases. “So writing helped patients get better, and also kept them from getting worse,” says Smyth.
In a more recent study, Pennebaker et al, and others at the University of Auckland in New Zealand found a similar pattern among HIV/AIDS patients. The researchers asked 37 patients in four 30-minute sessions to write about negative life experiences or about their daily schedules. Afterward, patients who wrote about life experiences measured higher on CD4 lymphocyte counts–a gauge of immune functioning–than did controls, though the boost to CD4 lymphocytes.
Pennebaker suggests “By writing, you put some structure and organization to those anxious feelings”.
Other research by Pennebaker indicates that suppressing negative, trauma-related thoughts compromises immune functioning, and that those who write visit the doctor less often.
But does “any old writing” make a difference? Is there a specific format that helps move past difficult experiences or feelings?
Structure your journalling for best effect
Research suggests that having a structure to writing helps. Here are some of the helpful elements to therapeutic writing:
- Have a time-bound period to write about the feelings you have
- Ask yourself questions to promote different perspectives on the situation eg: How might I feel looking back on this 10 years from now? What would my pet or favourite comedian have to say about this? What is still certain, even thought X has changed?
- Cultivating a daily “gratefulness practice” within your writing in the morning and the evening is very helpful: Three things I am grateful for today are….
- Susan Lutgendorf PhD of University of Iowa has shown that writing really helps if a person focuses on finding meaning and purpose in difficult experiences. If writing only serves to re-live events, it doesn’t change things for the better, but if you find meaning, even as generally as ‘I have become a stronger person as a result’, then it moves us on.
So to finish this blog, I’d like to offer a framework for a writing session. You can vary the length of the session according to your schedule and like all writing practices, it helps to work out when it fits into the rhythm of your day and the rhythm of your mind and body.
PURGE – spend some “boundaried”time just writing free-flow getting whatever it is “off your chest” or seeing what emerges from putting pen to paper, if there is nothing specific. Ensure you move on to the other stages of the practice after a short period of purging.
MERGE – write to find and merge different perspectives on the situation. How others might view it, how you would view it in a few years, question your perspectives on the situation and how this might be differently viewed by you. Be playful in considering other ways to think about the situation, people, emotions and circumstances.
PURPOSE – find the meanings and purposes in what happened. Even if what happened is not something you would choose, finding the benefits that might come from it, or the learning or strengths it’s bringing you, can all help add purpose and help you dissipate negative emotions.
GRATEFULNESS – looking more generally at the people, experiences, perspectives and things you are grateful for each day is beneficial. From your health, your food, the bumble bee you stopped to observe, to what your friend did for you to support you, or what you did for someone else and was glad to help, are all great ways to feel grateful.
Research suggests that if you generally don’t like talking about your challenges to others, writing can be of particular value, although this is not exclusively the case.
So, get yourself a journal, create the space and the place and get going!
PURGE – MERGE – PURPOSE – GRATEFULNESS
If you’d like more support with a challenge, or help getting started with a life transition, drop me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org for a 30 minute free conversation.