The key to Journaling for Health

Jornal

“All sorrows can be borne, if you put them in a story.” – Isak Dinesen


Do you want time for creative reflection instead of just reacting to to-do lists? Do you crave a space to divulge your innermost thoughts and feelings without judgement? Have you been meaning to get to know yourself better? All these things are possible with journaling. As if these benefits aren’t enough, the scientific community is uncovering that journaling can also improve physical and emotional health and even help people recover from traumatic events! But there’s a specific way to journal if you want these added bonuses.

Are you positive?

Journaling can mean different things to different people, but science has found that certain patterns of writing emerge when journaling also boosts our wellness. Perhaps the most obvious of these patterns is that when positive words and experiences are described, journal writers’ health improve. “When you write down a list of ‘three good things’ that happened that day, your brain is forced to scan the last 24 hours for potential positives- things that brought small or large laughs, feelings of accomplishments at work, a strengthened connection with family, a glimmer of hope for the future. In just five minutes a day, this trains the brain to become more skilled at noticing and focusing on possibilities for personal and professional growth.” [1] By writing these good vibes, we rewire our brains. We can train ourselves to have a positive mindset, in other words.

If we do this often enough, the positivity can translate into physical health. “These results are congruent with research among cancer patients wherein the more that they express joy, the better their prognosis.” [2] Still, writing about or expressing joy alone isn’t the only factor leading to wellness. Sometimes, in fact, such expression can surprisingly harm us.

Be authentic

One way the expression of joy can hurt us is when we’re not being true to our feelings. “The repressive coping style, wherein individuals who work to put on a positive impression tend to have poorer health.” [3] When we’re inauthentic to ourselves, especially when we need to communicate something difficult and instead repress it, health deteriorates.

In cases like loss, the opposite pattern is seen. When people write about negative experiences, health also improves, as in therapies of traumatic events. “Recent research hints that the mere labelling of an emotion may actually reduce its perceived intensity.” [4]

In my article, My Journaling Journey, I expand on how labeling emotions has benefited me.

The labeling, in turn, can lead to increased health. “Experiments suggest that the disclosure of traumas is simultaneously associated with improvement in certain aspects of immune function and physical health.” [5] Specifically, “writing about traumas is associated with improved immune function, as measured by enhancement in selected T-helper cell activity, response to latent Epstein-Barr virus reactivation, and response to hepatitis-B vaccination.” [6] Not only immunity improves, however. “Some of the more striking benefits of disclosure that were found included improvements in immune functioning, a reduction in health center visits, reduced absenteeism rates from work, improved grade point average, and decreased self-reported upper respiratory problems.” [7] Hence, “Writing about traumatic experiences for 3±5 days, for as little as 10 minutes per day, has been shown to result in reductions in subsequent visits to physicians.” [8] By journaling about such traumas, even if the language used and mindset surrounding them are not so rosy, we can speed recovery and increase our physical health in the process.

Journaling for health, then, is a rather complicated affair. On one hand, we can train ourselves to have positive mindsets. But if our minds aren’t already in a positive state, then the training can backfire. We can’t force the positivity training. If we lose a loved one, it’s natural to mourn. Through catharsis, getting our negativity expressed in words or tears is also important.

Sharing our experiences, whether positive or negative, then, is therapeutic and leads to increased wellness. This is why we like sharing news or trends at work. For better or worse, it’s why we gossip, too. “It is believed that disclosing information may allow people to free their mind of unwanted thoughts, help them to make sense of upsetting events, teach them to better regulate their emotions, habituate them to negative emotions, and improve their connections with their social world, all of which can lead to beneficial effects on health and well-being.” [9]

Storytelling

Another pattern that science has uncovered about journaling for health, which helps explain the sometimes contradictory information of the first two patterns of writing positively or negatively, is whether we write to make sense of our lives, problem solve, or otherwise story tell. From this perspective, we can begin to understand the even more nuanced play of positive and negative disclosure. For instance, “more and more, coping research has begun to recognize the impact of positive feelings in even very negative life experiences.” [10] Negative experiences can still be expressed positively and authentically.

On the other hand, even positive experiences can be infused with negative words but also lead to increased health. On study found that “those whose health improves most tend to use a higher proportion of negative emotion words than positive emotion words. Independent of verbal emotion expression, the increasing use of insight, causal, and associated cognitive words over several days of writing is linked to health improvement. That is, the construction of a coherent story together with the expression of negative emotions work together in therapeutic writing.” [11] Other studies confirm this finding. “The more that experimental students increased their use of insight-related and causal words, the more their health improved.” [12] Finally, “the findings are consistent with earlier formulations that suggest that the failure to translate upsetting experiences into language can result in psychological conflict and stress-related health problems.” [13] That is, repression of our feelings is bad for our health. As author Henry Miller puts it, “everything we shut our eyes to, everything we run away from, everything we deny, denigrate or despise, serves to defeat us in the end. What seems nasty, painful, evil, can become a source of beauty, joy, and strength, if faced with an open mind.” [14]

It’s important to note that by verbally sharing our stories with families, friends, and coworkers, also expressing these dynamic positive and negative thoughts in coherent “you’ll never guess who I ran into…, what happened was…”, or “my workday was soo stressful…” phrases, also help to improve our well-being. We may not always have a support network, however, or anyone we feel comfortable confiding in. Journaling, then, allows an alternative way of releasing pent up stress or sharing our deepest thoughts. “Writing about traumas or other stressors has positive physical and long-term psychological benefits. As a form of preventive psychotherapy, then, the writing technique is simple, inexpensive, and free of potentially negative social feedback. [15]

To summarize, “an increasing number of studies have demonstrated that when individuals write about emotional experiences, significant physical and mental health improvements follow.” [16] But writing can’t just be about anything. Regardless of whether the experiences written are positive or negative and whether they are written in a positive or negative light, what’s important is that an experience is processed and tried to be understood by the journal writer, with as much positivity or negativity as is necessary to arrive at that meaning. It’s training to tell yourself your true story.

By including this process in journal writing, you too can reap health and wellness rewards. Even non-journal writers can benefit from disclosing their stories. This “simple writing strategy could aid students attempting to adapt to a new school, employees coping with significant transitions, or other individuals facing personal upheavals.” [17]

References

[1] S Achor, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work. 2011, Virgin Books.

[2] Pennebaker, J. W., & Francis, M. E. (1996). Cognitive, emotional, and language processes in disclosure. Cognition and Emotion, 10, 601– 626. P. 623.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., P. 604. .

[5] Pennebaker, J. W., Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., & Glaser, R. (1988). Disclosure of traumas and immune function: Health implications for psychotherapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 56, 239 –245. P. 245.

[6] Pennebaker, J. W., & Francis, M. E. (1996). Cognitive, emotional, and language processes in disclosure. Cognition and Emotion, 10, 601– 626. P. 601. P. 602.

[7] Frattaroli J. (2006) Experimental disclosure and its moderators: a meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 132(6), pp. 823–865. P. 823.

[8] Pennebaker, J. W., & Francis, M. E. (1996). Cognitive, emotional, and language processes in disclosure. Cognition and Emotion, 10, 601– 626. P. 601.

[9] Frattaroli J. (2006) Experimental disclosure and its moderators: a meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 132(6), pp. 823–865. P. 823.

[10] Burton, Chad M., and Laura A. King. "The Health Benefits of Writing about Intensely Positive Experiences." Journal of Research in Personality 38, no. 2 (2004): 150-63. doi:10.1016/s0092-6566(03)00058-8. P. 160.

[11] Pennebaker, J.W. (1993). Putting stress into words: Health, linguistic, and therapeutic implications. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 31, 539-548. P. 539.

[12] Pennebaker, J. W., & Francis, M. E. (1996). Cognitive, emotional, and language processes in disclosure. Cognition and Emotion, 10, 601– 626. P. 622.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Durrell, Lawrence. The Henry Miller Reader. New York: New Directions Books, 1959.P. 356.

[15] Pennebaker, J. W., Colder, M., & Sharp, L. K. (1990). Accelerating the coping process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 528 – 537. P. 536.

[16] Pennebaker JW. Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychol Sci. 1997;8(3):162-166. P. 162.

[17] Pennebaker, J. W., & Francis, M. E. (1996). Cognitive, emotional, and language processes in disclosure. Cognition and Emotion, 10, 601– 626. P. 622.