Today I’m going to talk about a unique therapy that lifts and empowers people who are sick, anxious, stressed, or depressed. According to some experts, it improves their outlook and quality of life.
Cancer patients use it as a coping mechanism and a way to stay sane (or at least saner) while they undergo treatment.
Therapists often suggest it as a treatment for moodiness, depression, and PTSD.
It helps you take control of your life and put things in perspective.
So what is this unique therapy?
I’m talking about keeping a journal.
You may associate journaling with junior high girls gushing about their latest crush. “Dear Diary, these are my feelings…”
But keeping a daily diary is not just for young people trying to figure out their lives.
It’s a form of self-expression that can be valuable whatever your age or season of life. It can help you navigate through the bumps and bruises of a world where things don’t make sense and things don’t go perfectly all the time.
The cancer patients who use it (and their therapists who suggest it) may be on to something.
Two-time cancer survivor Barbara Tako says she journals whenever life gets really intense and/or her brain starts spinning out of control. She says she wrote about her anxiety to keep from drowning in it.
And you can, too – even if you’re not a “writer.”
The first all-important step
The first step to keeping a journal is to ditch your preconceived notions about it. There’s no right or wrong way to do it.
You type it, write it by hand, draw or sketch it, or clip it from magazines.
Your journal entry of the day can be a rant… or a bulleted list, or a letter you wrote but decided not to send. It can be an email from a friend, a travel log, or whatever. Let go of the rules, regulations, and boxes, and just let it flow.
Your diary is for you, and only for you.
It’s designed to help you clear your head, make important connections about your dreams and struggles, and more.
Journaling can improve your health
This is all very nice, you may think, but can putting words on a page really have any effect on your health?
Turns out it can – and does.
Letting it all out on a regular basis helps us process difficult events and compose a cohesive narrative about our experiences. This is especially important for those facing challenging health or life events – including cancer, depression, PTSD, grief, and life’s general letdowns…
Not surprisingly, those who journal regularly recommend it for everyone – healthy or sick, struggling or not.
Journaling engages both your analytical, rational left brain and your touchy-feely, creative right brain.
Boosts T-lymphocytes and more
Journaling has very real health benefits. According to an article by Michael Grothaus in Fast Company,1 it strengthens your T-lymphocyte immune cells. It’s also linked to decreased depression and anxiety, and improvements in mood, social engagement, and quality of friendships.
Dr. James Pennebaker is a psychologist and journaling expert. In his seminal study, participants in the experimental group wrote about “past trauma,” expressing their thoughts and feelings about it.2
They were asked to write down their deepest thoughts and feelings about the most horrible experience of their life. Or about an extremely important emotional issue that affected them and their life.
The goal was to explore their deepest emotions and connect those emotions to their key relationships.
In contrast, the control group was instructed to write as objectively and factually as possible about neutral topics (such as how they would describe a room or what their plans were for the day). They were told to write without expressing opinions or emotions.
Both groups wrote for 15 minutes a day for four consecutive days.
They were also told that if they ran out of things to write, they could go back and repeat a topic, perhaps writing about it a bit differently the second time around.
They were allowed to write on different topics each day, or the same topic every day. And they were specifically instructed NOT to worry about grammar, spelling, or sentence structure.
All writing was completely confidential.
The researchers conducted multiple assessments before and after each subject’s four-day journaling stint.
The most striking result was that the people in the experimental (expressive) group went to the doctor far less than those in the control group during the few months following the study.
Another profound finding was the boost in lymphocyte production among those in the experimental group. Levels of lymphocytes rose during the six weeks of the study.
Increased lymphocyte production is a sign of a healthier immune system, which may be behind the reduction in doctor visits.
Some participants reported that while the writing experience upset them, it was also valuable and meaningful.3
Quite a number of other researchers have replicated and validated the results. The study was NOT a one-off fluke.
The Fast Company article also discusses benefits such as faster wound healing, greater mobility for people with arthritis, and more. In short, it looks like blowing off steam in a diary is powerful medicine.
Never done it? Here’s how to get started…
If you’re intrigued by the research and want to give it a try, here are some tips to get you started.
1. Try to get used to using a pen again. Hardly anyone does this today.
Maud Purcell, psychotherapist and journaling expert, says that most of his patients intuitively know that writing by hand is better than typing.
And research supports their intuition. Writing by hand stimulates an area of the brain called the reticular activating system (RAS), which helps us filter and focus on what we’re writing.
Writing with pen also keeps us from constantly editing what we’ve written. Even if pen writing is awkward at first, it gets easier with time. Just give it a few weeks.
2. It’s for you, not for anyone else. So play by your rules. If you can’t stand writing by hand, find the alternative that’s best for you. Maybe it’s a touch screen, maybe a keyboard.
3. Stick to a time limit. That might mean five minutes, or fifteen. Don’t force yourself to fill a certain number of pages. Set a timer and let that be your guide. Then write continuously. Let it flow.
4. There’s no “right” time or place to make your daily journal entry. Some people like doing it first thing in the morning, others right before bed. Find a routine that works for you. Journaling in the same place every day can be helpful, but isn’t mandatory.
Cancer survivor Barbara Tako reminds us that “habits are things that help us, and rules are things that restrict us.” Make your decisions accordingly.
5. Don’t try to be Shakespeare. This isn’t a performance for others to critique. It’s for you! Shakespeare wrote for a living, and was a careful observer of human nature for decades. Good for him. But be true to yourself. Stop trying to imitate great writers, and forget about spelling, grammar, sentence structure, and edits. If you’re worrying about all those things, you may miss the very point of journaling.
6. Incorporate gratitude into your journaling. Use your journal as an opportunity to reflect (and record) the good things in your life, and to be thankful for them. Gratitude helps reduce symptoms of depression, enables you to reach your goals, and improves social engagement. Plus it boosts long-term wellbeing, reduces pain, and improves sleep. Can you think of even one downside to gratitude? I can’t.
7. Keep it private and secure. Unless you’re working with a psychologist who asks you to keep a journal so you can discuss your thoughts at appointments, keep yours private and in a secure place.
If you’re going to benefit from journaling, you have to feel free to express things you wouldn’t even tell your best friend or your spouse. It has to be a judgment-free zone.
Writing a book is for others. Journaling is for yourself. If anything you write could harm your relationships or your reputation, destroy it or put it under lock and key.
Why journal? A quick review…
Journaling is a great habit – whether or not you’re suffering (or have suffered) from disease or trauma. It’s time well spent.
Regular journaling promotes creativity and propels you toward your goals… Helps relieve stress… Gives you an outlet for your emotions… Facilitates learning through its record of lessons and ideas… Increases gratitude… Provides a reason to push through difficult seasons of life.
It’s hard to find a downside to this simple habit that only costs a pen and a $5 or $10 journal. And its positive effects on your health and wellbeing could be beyond measure.
- Pennebaker JW, Beall SK (Aug 1986). “Confronting a traumatic event: toward an understanding of inhibition and disease”. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 95 (3): 274–81. doi:10.1037/0021-843x.95.3.274. PMID 3745650.
- Pennebaker, James W. (May 1997). “Writing about Emotional Experiences as a Therapeutic Process”(PDF). Psychological Science. 8 (3): 162–166. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.1997.tb00403.x. JSTOR 40063169.