This is a guest post from therapeutic journaling expert and author, Mari L. McCarthy.
Did you know that handwriting therapeutically in a journal can boost your immune system and slash the number of visits you make to the doctors?
Yes, therapeutic journaling – also known as expressive writing, can improve the symptoms of chronic illness, reduce your chances of catching a common cold, and even reduce drug costs.
But what is the evidence for therapeutic journaling, and how do you get started? Here are some frequently asked questions and answers:
What is the difference between journaling and therapeutic journaling?
People begin journaling for all sorts of reasons; often because they want to document significant periods in their lives, such as an extended trip abroad, a wedding, a pregnancy, or leisure activities. It may be fun to keep a journal to express your opinion on popular books, films, or aspects of culture. In this type of journaling, you tend to make observations you would be happy to share with the whole world.
However, this type of writing is not necessarily therapeutic journaling. The therapeutic element arises when you write freely, expressing your deepest thoughts and emotions without trying to censor yourself. A therapeutic journal should be a private, pen-to-paper affair where you discover who you are on a profound level; a safe place to express your deepest fears and process your day-to-day experiences, particularly when you are stressed.
You have to be prepared to be honest with yourself and confront painful feelings. Sometimes you will find that sad memories come to mind when you are writing honestly from the heart. Stay with it, keep writing, and it will pass when it is ready.
It’s good to write about the highs and the lows, not forgetting the things you have to be grateful for. I advise my clients to record in detail their most memorable moments of love and joy so that they can read them back years later – you might want to keep a separate gratitude journal for this purpose.
However, the key is always to go deep, expressing your private thoughts and feelings without restraint.
How much scientific evidence exists for therapeutic journaling?
Therapeutic writing has helped thousands of people who participated in clinical studies.
The pioneer in this field is James Pennebaker, whose work on expressive writing has spanned 30 years. Working with J.R. Susman, he found that people who talked about their traumas, such as divorce or bereavement, did better than those who kept their experiences to themselves. So, Pennebaker reasoned that if talking about traumatic events was beneficial, then writing about them might also be effective. He carried out further experiments to test this hypothesis along with his co-researcher S.K.Beall.
Pennebaker and Beall studied 50 students who were randomly assigned to two groups; one group wrote about “the most traumatic experience of my life” and the other group wrote about a non-emotional topic. With the participants’ permission, Pennebaker and Beall then counted the number of visits made by each student to see their doctor (for illness, not routine appointments) before and after the study. The results were highly significant, revealing that the students who had written about their traumas made 43% fewer visits to the doctor afterwards than those who had written about non-emotional topics.
Dozens of follow-up studies have yielded similar results. Several studies have found that expressive writing enhances the performance of the immune system (Pennebaker, Kiecolt-Glasser & Glasser 1988; Lumley et al. 2011; Koschwanez et al. 2013).
Therapeutic writing has been shown to help people suffering from many chronic illnesses, including asthma patients who showed improvements in lung function, and rheumatoid arthritis patients who had better joint mobility when tested (Smyth & Arigo 2009; Smyth et al. 1999).
Writing has also helped HIV and cancer patients, as well as people suffering with Lupus, liver disease, IBS, and chronic pelvic pain. Altogether, around 300 studies have been carried out in the past 30 years, and in the majority of these studies, expressive writing was found to help significant numbers of people.
What are the main benefits of therapeutic journaling?
As well as better physical health, studies have shown that therapeutic journaling helps people with depression, anxiety, and general wellbeing. It also helps people to sleep better, especially if they do some writing before bedtime. Expressive writing also enhances exam performance and work productivity because of improvements to short-term (working) memory.
However, one of the biggest transformations I witness in people is that they become more creative and make positive changes in all areas of their lives. They get to know themselves and their core values better, and consequently become more effective at setting goals and reaching them.
Journaling can help people in their social relationships too, and help them cope with major losses, such as being laid off or losing a significant other. Your journal can help you through any life challenge.
How do you get started with therapeutic journaling?
It’s really easy to get started. All you need is a quiet space where you won’t be interrupted, a notebook, and your favorite pen. Begin with the free-writing technique; just write anything that comes into your head and keep going for 20 or 30 minutes. This stream-of-consciousness writing was popularized by creativity guru Julia Cameron and it really helps to clear your head of distractions.
You don’t need to worry about grammar, spelling, or anything else to do with performance. It’s simply a dumping exercise to reduce stress. Even if you write about what you want to cook for dinner and other apparently trivial stuff, it helps to offload the junk you are carrying around in your head and clears the way for calmer, more productive thinking and more quality time for action planning and taking.
By making therapeutic journaling a part of your daily health routine, you’ll heal, grow, and transform in ways that will continually amaze you!
Mari L. McCarthy is the Founder and Chief Inspiration Officer of the Journaling Power community at createwritenow.com, where she provides ideas, inspiration, and many therapeutic journaling resources for health conscious people who want to resolve the issues in their tissues.
She is the author of the best-selling self-help memoir, Journaling Power: How To Create the Happy, Healthy Life You Want to Live.