Journal Writing for Health and Healing

InformalJohnJohn A. Patterson MD, MSPH. FAAFP
July 2013

Writing can help you access inner wisdom that can be used for health and healing.

Journal writing is a simple, inexpensive, convenient form of self-care. Research shows that emotionally expressive journal writing can lower high blood pressure, reduce arthritis pain, asthma severity and cancer pain, promote wound healing and enhance immune function in HIV/AIDS.

Journaling can also relieve the stress and emotional suffering of insomnia, anxiety, depression, grief, cancer survivorship, anger, loneliness, traumatic events, eating disorders and addiction to tobacco, drugs and alcohol.

Beyond its use in alleviating these forms of pain and suffering, journal writing can increase your sense of mental, emotional and spiritual well being, build resilience, enhance emotional intelligence, nurture creativity, improve communication and relationships, identify purpose, meaning, clarify deepest values and ignite a personal passion for your unique life path by cultivating acceptance, gratitude, happiness, forgiveness and compassion.

For instance, try writing down everything you are grateful for. Keep the list and add to it over several days. Over time, gratitude can be felt at surprisingly unexpected moments as you have learned to see the gratitude in the present, at the time it arises. The seeds of gratitude were always there. They take root, sprout and grow when they are watered, fertilized and cultivated by your attention.

Journal writing should not be considered a substitute for professional help when your level of distress is severe. Physical pain and emotional suffering may sometimes require professional help from medical or mental health providers or from trusted clergy or pastoral counselors. And like medication, even journal writing can have side effects. Writing only about the details of traumatic events could make you feel worse. If there is a question about your response to journaling, speak with a trusted medical, mental health or spiritual counselor.

Most people, however, experience journal writing as a positive and therapeutic experience. In fact, the remarkable thing about therapeutic journal writing is its ability to provide insight into life’s problems and reduction of physical pain and relief from mental, emotional and spiritual suffering, sometimes as effectively as prescribed medication and professional counseling.

Psychologist James W Pennebaker points out that it is often best not to write about one’s illness directly. He recommends starting by writing about a teacher or book that positively influenced your life. He also suggests writing a letter to yourself as a child to help mobilize self-nurturing feelings. The goal here is not the production of a written product but the interior experience that results from it. You may wish to save your writing but you can also destroy what you’ve written, since the emotional awareness of the act of writing was the goal, not the written product itself.

In Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma and Emotional Upheaval, Pennebaker suggests this simple exercise for anyone bothered by a stressful event or past turmoil. 1) Write for 20 minutes per day for four days 2) Write about a major conflict or stressor in your life, something personal and important 3) Write without stopping until you feel a good stopping point; don’t worry about spelling and grammar like you did in school 4) Write for your eyes only 5) If writing makes you feel worse- stop.
Notice how different this is from most diary entries or journaling.  The usual diary habit of recording the day’s events in a log-type manner would be very different from this emotional writing about stressful events.
Whether typing or handwriting, just start with a blank page and begin writing. You might try writing daily as a commitment to the practice or simply keep a journal handy and write as needed. Grief is a particularly unpredictable emotion, with waves coming and going without warning. Writing down and capturing these waves in the moment, as they occur, can be extremely helpful in grief recovery.
The goal is to identify your feelings and write them- cultivating your emotional intelligence. For ages, people have begun writing with ‘Dear Diary’, illustrating the relationship that may develop between you and your trusted journal.
Rachel Remen MD taught me the Heart Journal, or 3 Question Journal, which she learned from the work of Angeles Arrien. At bedtime each night, reflecting back on your day, ask yourself three questions- What surprised me today? What touched my heart today? What inspired me today? Write down your answers, or simply let them relax your body, quiet your mind and open your heart as you fall asleep.
When I journal like this regularly, my days become more alive with surprises and inspirations and moments that touch my heart.

Resources:

James W Pennebaker, Writing and Health- Some Practical Advice

http://homepage.psy.utexas.edu/homepage/faculty/pennebaker/Home2000/WritingandHealth.html

Rachel Remen, Keeping a Heart Journal

http://www.rachelremen.com/keeping-a-heart-journal/

Writing Down to the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Natalie Goldberg

About the Author-
Dr Patterson is past president of the Kentucky Academy of Family Physicians and is board certified in family medicine and integrative holistic medicine. He is on the family practice faculty at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine and the University of Louisville School of Medicine, Saybrook University’s School of Mind Body Medicine (San Francisco) and the Center for Mind Body Medicine (Washington, DC). He operates the Mind Body Studio in Lexington, where he offers integrative medicine consultations. He can be reached through his website at www.mindbodystudio.org.