This morning, I woke up feeling stressed. As is my daily habit, I sat down in the living room as soon as I got up. I picked up my journal, and started to write how I was feeling. (I do this as a form of prayer.) As usual, I started to feel better.
“I give every patient two primary prescriptions,” he told us. “Walk every day. Journal every day. You’d be amazed how much these two activities help one’s mental health."
I never forgot it.
I’ve always found journaling to be enjoyable and therapeutic. It’s a profoundly helpful window into the behind-the-scenes workings of my mind, heart, and life. I recommend it to almost all my patients and coaching clients, particularly if they’re feeling stuck or overwhelmed.
Recently, I came across the landmark research of James Pennebaker. In the 1980's, he discovered a link between “expressive writing” — writing for 15-20 minutes at a time, over several days, about a past traumatic event, or secret concerns — and measurable improvements in immune system function. Doctor visits also decreased. These results have been replicated in patients with a variety of conditions, including asthma, arthritis, breast cancer, and HIV.
Subsequent studies found that when people did similar short-term writing interventions, wounds on their skin healed significantly faster. Incredible. (For an autobiographical summary of his research over time, read this 2017 article from Pennebaker in Perspectives on Psychological Science.)
Some helpful facts have emerged from the research of Pennebaker and others, as the understanding of this phenomenon has grown:
1. Don’t suppress your thoughts and emotions related to traumatic experiences. Pushing down or denying what happened to you isn’t a helpful response. To support this fact, research has shown that suppressing related thoughts and feelings can compromise your immune function.
2. It’s not just about venting. People who focus exclusively on venting negative emotions might experience worsening health. (Ullrich and Lutgendorf discuss that effect in the 2002 Annals of Behavioral Medicine.) To experience the health benefits of expressive writing or journaling, you need another ingredient.
3. Seek to interpret your experience as you write about it. Pennebaker discovered a writing pattern that predicted improved health outcomes: Those who started out using a lot of “I” references, but then shifted to more words like “because," “realize,” or “understand," saw more benefits from the writing process. This indicated that the writer was actively interpreting what had happened to them.
As most clinicians are aware, it’s not helpful to repeat the same negative narrative, over and over. Processing a stressful experience, and incorporating it into the overarching narrative of your life, is key. This is thought to reduce stress, the key factor in producing health benefits.
4. Make lemonade out of life’s lemons. Lutgendorf notes that people who are able to find positive meaning in traumatic life events enjoy better health than those missing this perspective.
It doesn’t mean that what happened was good; it may have been truly awful. Still, it’s well established that those who experience trauma and adversity often become stronger and more resilient. If you train yourself to watch for the positive that emerges out of negative (or even devastating) events, it positively impacts your mind and body.
When you’re processing something particularly intense or traumatic, it’s wise to have qualified, therapeutic support on hand. This article isn’t meant to replace the advice of your doctor, psychologist, or counseling professional. Seek their advice first.
Many of us spend our days running from one thing to another, without taking time to reflect on or process what's going on inside (or around) us. A regular journaling practice can be helpful and grounding, and It doesn't have to take long: Even just a few minutes a day (or whenever you're feeling stressed) can be helpful.
© Copyright 2019 Dr. Susan Biali Haas