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Jason Powers
Jason Powers M.D.

Journaling Clears Out the Bad, Builds Up the Good

Why I encourage my patients to write for their own benefit and consumption.

Serena Williams does it. So does Oprah. Tyler Perry says journaling helped him launch his career and former Black Eyed Peas songstress Fergie, a recovering crystal meth addict, credits the introspective process of journal-keeping as an essential ingredient in the realization of her true potential.

digitalskillet/iStock Photo
Source: digitalskillet/iStock Photo

Journaling is the Swiss Army knife of healing and growth, my friend and positive psychology educator Reb Rebele says. As a doctor who treats physical and mental illness, with a specialty in addiction, I approach optimal wellness from a balanced perspective. That is, identifying and eliminating pathology is crucial, but it's not enough. Therefore, I also teach people the skills necessary to flourish, such as experiencing more positive emotions, developing their character strengths, pursuing and achieving meaningful goals, and nurturing deep, long-lasting supportive relationships, to name just a few.

It's why I encourage my patients to write for their own benefit and consumption. Writing is simply an effective tool for processing our emotions. During therapy in our facilities, we also prompt clients to spend time in reflection, to dig deeper, to think about topics on their own and in new ways. Sharing is voluntary, their work will not be critiqued on either writing style or content.

The key point, however, is that the benefit comes from the actual journaling—not the thinking about or planning to journal. Good intentions are not bad, but invariably when I ask patients if they benefitted from one of the umpteenth writing assignments we hand out, the answer is often, “no,” they haven't “gotten around to it yet.”

"Writing down your feelings in a notebook or journal can help clear out negative thoughts and emotions that keep you feeling stuck.” –Serena Williams

Multiple studies show that disclosing emotions through journaling is therapeutic, and now new research published by the American Psychological Association reveals that gratitude journaling—expressing thanks for the good things that happen to us—is of tremendous help to people suffering from heart failure. Researchers at UC San Diego recruited 186 patients from cardiology clinics and asked them to list three things for which they were thankful every day for eight weeks—an intervention straight out of University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Martin Seligman’s toolkit. Even the researchers were surprised at the results.

“We found that more gratitude in these patients was associated with better mood, better sleep, less fatigue and lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers related to cardiac health,” said UCSD lead author Paul J. Mills in a news release.

Journaling gets it out of you and onto paper; it is a catharsis. It helps you to understand, unload and heal. It encourages me that everything is OK; this too shall pass.” –Tyler Perry

Still another new study finds that journaling can help mothers of autistic children manage chronic stress, giving them a safe place to talk about difficult feelings. Because a mother’s stress negatively affects her child’s ability to benefit from treatment, journaling was deemed particularly important for these women.

Overall, the research suggests that journaling improves immune system function, reduces health problems, and helps the out-of-work journal-keeper find employment faster after he or she has lost a job.

If you’re intimated by the idea of journaling, write for only 10 minutes a day. Don’t focus on sentence structure or grammar. Just keep the pen moving. Journaling on your smartphone is also a good way to keep tabs on your emotions. For those in recovery, there’s a free app that not only has a feature for journaling, but also a database that includes more than 140,000 support group meetings throughout the U.S.

So are you ready to reap the rewards of journaling?

I am the chief medical officer at Promises Austin drug rehabilitation center and The Right Step network of addiction treatment programs in Texas. I am the pioneer of Positive Recovery, an approach to addiction treatment that helps people discover meaning and purpose in their lives, and write a blog on addiction.

About the Author
Jason Powers

Jason Powers, M.D., is certified in addiction and family medicine and serves as chief medical officer at Right Step and Promises Austin.

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