Journaling

As a graduate student studying psychology and counseling back in the late nineteen eighties and early nineties, many assignments in my program involved writing papers to demonstrate what I was learning to prepare me to work in the field.  One of these assignments was more open-ended than others, writing about a topic of my choosing, related to psychology, which was of interest to me.  At first, I was uncertain what I could write about, but then I remembered I had spent some time wondering why one of the leaders in my religious faith kept encouraging us to keep a journal.  I had received my first journal as a gift from my mother for Christmas 1968 and had done some sporadic writing in it for some years after that.  I had even written about my father’s death (in a B-52 crash in Orlando, Florida in 1972) some months after his passing.  Other things I had written were later embarrassing to me because I had matured and no longer felt the same way I had back in those younger, less eloquent years.  In general, however, I was happy that I had spent that time recording what I thought and felt so I could look back on it and see how I had changed or grown.

But this new admonition to keep a journal just left me puzzled.  Granted, I understood the importance of recording events and our perspectives about them, but I kept asking myself, “Why is this leader making such a big deal about journaling?”  I decided to review some of the research available about this practice to see if I could learn other benefits, and to write my paper about my findings.

As I dug into the research, I was astounded at the benefits associated with journal keeping.  One key researcher, James Pennebaker, Ph.D., had studied outcomes for people who did expressive writing, such as takes place in journaling.  He found common effects of journaling included stronger immune system functioning, better sleep habits, improved mental health, regulated blood pressure, and a reduction in pain caused by chronic diseases.  “How was this possible?” I thought.  How could writing help improve people’s mental and physical health?  At first, I was skeptical about these findings, but as I continued my review of the research, study after study reported the same results—people who do expressive writing tend to enjoy the health benefits listed above.  Researchers theorized that the process of organizing one’s thoughts and feelings enough to put them into sentences, writing them down on paper or typing them into a computer, actually slows down the thinking process to help understand feelings in new and productive ways.  It also allows writers to “off-load” things they had been thinking, worrying about, or feeling stressed about onto paper and not have to “carry them around” as much.  The result of this “brain dump” was that writers felt less subjective stress.  Reducing stress lowered the amount of cortisol in the bloodstream, a hormone whose function is to temporarily slow metabolism (such as digestion) and suppress immune system functioning to make resources in the body more available to other more vital systems in times of high stress, such as fight or flight situations.  If writing helps reduce cortisol levels, a person’s immune system is therefore more functional.  Learning this connection helped me realize how writing could have this powerful effect.

Pennebaker and other researchers/writers such as Rebecca Kochenderfer have suggested “writing helps construct a narrative to contextualize trauma and organize ideas…writing about grief and trauma help achieve closure which tells the brain its work is done so we can feel free to move forward.”  Writing can help a person “heal old emotional wounds, feel a greater sense of well-being, decrease stress, improve relationships, and boost the immune system.”

Dr. Pennebaker suggests the following to help you get started exploring the benefits of journaling:

  • Find a time and place to write where you will not be disturbed.  He suggests at the end of your working day or before you go to bed.
  • Write for a minimum of 15 minutes per day for three to four consecutive days.
  • As you write, do not worry about punctuation or grammar—just write what you think and feel in as much detail as possible. 
  • You may wish to write about the same topic, event, or experience for multiple days in a row, but there are no rules. 
  • What you write is only for you—avoid editing at first. 
  • You can write it out on paper, type it on a computer, or even talk into a tape recorder. 
  • Do what fits you best.

Suggestions of what to write about include the following:

  • Something that you are thinking or worrying about too much.
  • Something that you are dreaming about.
  • Something that you feel is affecting your life in an unhealthy way.
  • Something that you have been avoiding for days, weeks, or years.

If you are interested in additional information about this stress-relieving and healing technique, the following resources may be beneficial:

  • Dr. James Pennebaker’s website at the University of Texas at Austin—liberalarts.utexas.edu
  • Podcast by Rebecca Kochenderfer titled “The Power of Journaling”
  • Websites Journaling.com and rebecca@journaling.com
  • Dr. Pennebaker’s books Opening Up By Writing it Down and Expressive Writing:  Words that Heal (with author John Evans)

I still keep a journal today, in fact I am up to Volume 20.  We all need to help ourselves to function better and be happier.

Try it!

Michael W. Kesler, Ph.D.

Licensed Psychologist – Doctorate – Vermont

Licensed Psychologist – New York