Health Journal - Write Your Way to Health!

The "Write" Path to Health -

Unique Method of Journaling Can Help You Heal

Reprinted from Daily Health News, August 20, 2007

Perhaps you have personal experience with how rewarding it can be to record your thoughts, feelings and actions in a journal. It feels great, right?

James W. Pennebaker, PhD, professor and chair of the department of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, and author of Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma & Emotional Upheaval (New Harbinger) has developed a form of journaling called "expressive writing," specifically geared to help people cope with illness and traumatic events. Very curious to understand how Dr. Pennebaker measured the act and art of journaling, I called him to learn more about what expressive writing is and how it works.

Dr. Pennebaker first studied expressive writing in 1984, as a way to help people address difficult situations. One group of students was asked to write about a previous traumatic experience (more on that below), and another group to write about superficial matters. When records from the Student Health Center were reviewed months after the experiment, those who had taken part in expressive writing had far fewer physician visits and illnesses than those who wrote on meaningless topics. Since then more than 200 studies have evaluated expressive writing's impact on health and the ability of patients to cope with diseases including cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and asthma. It seems expressive writing may lead people to a new perspective on their challenges, helping them to assimilate even the most difficult ones more comfortably into their lives. For many, this method of cognitive processing can reduce stress levels and blood pressure, and improves other markers of mental and physical health.

It's not as simple as just keeping a journal, though. Research studies have led to the development of "expressive writing" as a specific activity, a project of sorts. The idea is simply to go into yourself, and explore your innermost thoughts and feelings for a specific period of time. You set down your thoughts without concern to spelling, sentence structure or grammar. Some researchers instruct patients to write on specific topics, but Dr. Pennebaker suggests a looser approach. If other concerns surface while writing you can segue off topic to explore them. For example, "Writing about your feelings about an illness may bring up other situations in life -- your relationships or perhaps feelings about your work. Feel free to tie into those feelings as you write," he says. He urges people to delve into anything that is bothering them, including early traumatic experiences. Not infrequently, he says, diagnosis of a serious illness brings up feelings about past events and situations, and offers an opportunity to explore and often resolve them more fully.

Additionally, this particular form of expressive writing takes place in a specific and short time frame. Participants write for 20 to 30 minutes each day over a period of three to four days. There are several reasons for these boundaries, says Dr. Pennebaker. Having a clear beginning and a specific end point helps people who are reluctant to write or who don't like the process to move past their initial hesitation. The short span also helps people zero in more quickly on their problems, and come to a faster understanding of them, he says. He cautions against undertaking expressive writing immediately after an emotional upheaval -- it takes a certain period of time to absorb and begin processing disturbing information. However, it depends on the individual, and if a person sees benefit immediately after a trauma then writing is okay. If after several (say, five) days or so a person isn't making any progress, he/she might try another strategy, such as seeing a therapist or jogging. Dr. Pennebaker also says to avoid reliving the story over and over again in the writing. "The idea is to move past what happened -- to explore what you feel about it and why, and how this issue links to others that surround it," he says.

Unlike support groups, which provide an audience for thoughts and feelings, as well as the relief of shared experiences, expressive writing is done in isolation. Dr. Pennebaker notes that people with fewer social and emotional connections to family and friends often benefit enormously from the practice because it gives them a place to discover what is really going on inside of them. It is crucial to keep all writing totally private, he stresses. This frees people to write how they really feel, without modifying it even slightly to protect others' feelings.

For those dealing with a long-term disease and its treatment, such as cancer, periodic forays into expressive writing can help process the feelings and concerns as they develop. But people facing more ordinary challenges in life can also benefit from the practice. Dr. Pennebaker says he personally uses expressive writing as a periodic "life-course correction," sometimes achieving new insights in only a day or so. He suggests it can be a way to stand back now and then, and ask yourself what is going on in your relationship, your work, with your children and other important areas -- and then write about your concerns. Keep in mind the following as you do so:

  • Plan to write for a minimum of 20 minutes a day for three or four days.
    If you find it beneficial, feel free to write more.
  • Write however you feel most comfortable -- with a pen and paper, or a computer.
  • Write whatever comes to your mind -- whatever is troubling you most, what keeps
    you awake or causes you stress -- without thought to spelling, sentence structure, grammar and the like... repeat topics if you want.
  • Keep your writing strictly private -- this is for your eyes only and not to be
    shared with anyone else.
  • Plan to dispose of your writing, even if you later decide to keep some of it. By
    planning to throw away the writing it frees people to say what they really think,
    including if they are mad at their best friend, mother, mate, etc.

In Dr. Pennebaker's experience, about a third of those who have tried expressive writing turn it into a regular part of their life. It may seem structured and mechanistic, but many people find it really works well. Give it a try, he says and see where your writing takes you.

James W. Pennebaker, PhD, professor and chair of the department of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, author of Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma & Emotional Upheaval (New Harbinger).