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Turning Trauma Into Story: the Benefits of Journaling

Why those who write have lower stress, improved health

Every day for the past 12 years (save for a few angsty months in 8th grade), I've been writing in a journal. A good, old-fashioned, hardbound, acid-free journal. Most entries are about the frivolous happenings of the day at school, but as I've gotten older, they've increasingly helped me outline my thoughts and feelings while keeping my head on straight.

Writing, as many would probably agree, is therapeutic, and studies in the past two decades have explored the health consequences of secrets, expressive language, and the before-and-after physical and psychological symptoms associated with trauma—an area of research referred to as "writing therapy."

Dr. James W. Pennebaker, a social psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, is considered to be the pioneer of writing therapy. His basic paradigm for expressive writing experiments remains widely used today:

"For the next 4 days, I would like you to write your very deepest thoughts and feelings about the most traumatic experience of your entire life or an extremely important emotional issue that has affected you and your life. In your writing, I'd like you to really let go and explore your deepest emotions and thoughts. ... Don't worry about spelling, grammar, or sentence structure. The only rule is that once you begin writing, you continue until the time is up."

Dr. James W. Pennebaker

Many who have followed these simple instructions over the years have seen dramatic changes in their lives. Says Pennebaker, "When people are given the opportunity to write about emotional upheavals, they often experienced improved health. They go to the doctor less. They have changes in immune function. If they are first-year college students, their grades tend to go up."

When we experience a traumatic event or major transition in life, our minds function to process and understand what's happening to us. Our thoughts can consume us, keeping us up at night or distracting our performance at work or school.

Translating these experiences into language, however, gives us a physical piece to contemplate, perhaps allowing us to better "grasp" what's going on. In a different but related theory, the ability to construct a story from our experiences may gives us the opportunity to detach ourselves and approach our situation more objectively. Stories may also be better stored in the brain as memories, rather than what may otherwise be a random amalgamation of strong emotions.

Despite these benefits, Pennebaker asserts that we may not necessarily be better off journaling daily about our traumas. "I'm not even convinced that people should write about a horrible event for more than a couple weeks... But standing back every now and then and evaluating where you are in life is really important."

Of course, people these days need not bring out ye olde quill and parchment like myself to work out their thoughts and emotions. With the expansion of the Internet in the late 1990s came the onslaught of personal blogs (short for "web logs")—everything from the traditional (a la Blogger and Wordpress) to the microblog (Twitter) to the highly share-able Tumblr format. It is estimated that there are over 170 million blogs in existence.

The prevalence of digitized thoughts, feelings, emotions, and experiences has given researchers a new tool for tracking changes in society on a massive scale. Most famously, a study published in Science back in September asserted that individuals are happiest in the morning, but the feeling deteriorates as the day progresses—consistent, they say, with the effects of sleep and circadian rhythm. Golder and Macy aggregated data from millions of public Twitter messages, using computer software to detect positive words ("awesome," "agree") and negative words ("hate," "annoy") as well as smiling and frowning faces ("emoticons"). This type of study, as expected, has received much grief for "not actually being scientific."

In a 2004 study published in Psychological Science, Pennebaker and colleagues were among the first researchers to explore the power of written expression during psychological distress using a similar mass-blogging data analysis. The researchers downloaded LiveJournal entries of 1,084 public blogs for four months—two months prior to and two months after the September 11 attacks. This method also allowed them to collect age, gender, and location information based on information from their public profiles. Using the text analysis program Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC), each word in the 78,000 entries analyzed was checked against a dictionary of 2,300 words and characterized by four basic categories: emotional positivity, cognitive processing, social orientation, and psychological distancing.

Pennebaker found that shortly after the 9/11 attacks (less than two weeks), the blogs expressed significantly more negative emotions and were written with greater psychological distancing. After two weeks, the writers' "moods" returned to baseline (two months before the attacks), but psychological distancing remained elevated over six weeks. Although all effects were stronger for individuals highly preoccupied with 9/11 (i.e. those shown to blatantly write about the events more often), comparable language changes were seen overall.

Although this analysis method is still relatively new and flawed, it shows promise for real-time tracking of response to drastic changes as they naturally unfold, providing a continuous timeline on a massive and diverse scale. This study in particular demonstrates the ability for humans to affiliate more during periods of threat as well as a—perhaps unconscious—concern of individual victims, their community, and/or the entire nation. While zero entries revealed writers' feelings of involvement with a large social group (such as a city or country) before the attacks, 44% of post-9/11 entries did.

Journaling is a powerful tool, whether one does it privately to collect their thoughts, or publicly with the hopes of syndicating to or receiving advice from others. Beyond the therapeutic advantages, I am mostly excited to pass down a physical time capsule of my often-pathetic scrawls and doodlings to my descendants, a sentiment likely derived from my love of the fictional Dear America books. It's also quite fun to look back and see what I was doing on this day a year ago, five years, or ten years ago.

Cohn MA, Mehl MR, & Pennebaker JW (2004). Linguistic markers of psychological change surrounding September 11, 2001. Psychological science, 15 (10), 687-93 PMID: 15447640

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