In a laundry list of things to do to stay healthy — eat more vegetables, exercise, meditate, manage your stress — adding yet one more can seem daunting.
Yet, an ancient practice dating back to the 10th century — one that presidents, authors, intellectual luminaries (and quite possibly your pre-teen self) all have done — may hold significant benefits for your mental and physical well-being today: journaling.
The therapeutic value of journaling
“Our feelings are our most genuine path for knowledge.” – Audre Lorde
Unlike traditional diary writing — which is recording the events of the day — therapeutic journaling involves writing down our thoughts and feelings about our personal experiences.
UW Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, explains that the kind of private reflection that takes place while writing can help us work through issues and concerns we may have to allow us to come to a deeper understanding.
“Through therapeutic journaling, we use the written word to express the full range of emotions we may have related to difficult or traumatic life events. In doing so, we can help create a greater sense of well-being,” Mirgain says.
While therapeutic journaling has proven effective in the treatment of those experiencing posttraumatic stress and trauma survivors, the benefits also extend to those living with chronic health conditions such as asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, chronic pain and even those who are chronically poor sleepers.
“There is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates the beneficial effects of writing. Just 20 minutes at a time over four consecutive days was associated with a decrease in health problems, such as enhancing the immune system functioning,” Mirgain says.
She cites additional research that found students who wrote about meaningful personal experiences for 15 minutes a day over the course of several days in a row felt better and got higher grades in school. Even as little as four minutes a day can make a measurable difference in a person’s mood and sense of well-being.
“When upsetting, challenging or traumatic events occur, we often are not able to fully process what happened and the event — and the emotions around what occurred — become stuck in our memory, often with a lot of distressing emotions and intrusive thoughts,” she says.
The simple act of expressing thoughts on paper can allow us to let go of the feelings involved, and in Mirgain’s words, “allow us to fully metabolize our experience.” In doing so, we can construct a meaningful personal narrative about what happened and make sense of the experience.
How to journal: Step-by-step
In order to get the most from the experience, it’s important to move beyond recounting the events of the day. Dr. Mirgain recommends starting with a four-day writing exercise – writing consecutively for four days, but keeping each session brief.
She offers the following guidelines based on the work of Dr James Pennebaker to help:
1. Where to do it
Find a location where you will be undisturbed and not distracted by phones or other devices.
2. Choosing a topic
Mirgain suggests writing about something that is bothering you – perhaps a situation at work, or a disagreement with a family member or friend – or something that is very personal and important to you. And trust where your writing takes you.
“As you write, explore your emotions and thoughts about the experience. You might tie the subject to current relationships, or relate it to who you may have been, who you are now and who you would like to be,” she explains.
You may find yourself writing about the same event on all four days, or different events on each day. Mirgain cautions if you decide to approach a deeply emotional subject — such as a past trauma — it is best not to write about it for several weeks afterwards as it may be too difficult to deal with some of the emotions that arise around what happened.
3. Length and frequency
Limit your writing to 15 to 20 minutes a day for four days and try to keep writing each day. It’s more effective if you do write consecutively than once in a while.
As you’re writing remember to keep writing until your time is up. You can try setting an alarm so you’re not distracted by watching the clock. And if you run out of things to say before your time is up, you can repeat what you’ve already written.
That said, writing about the same topic day after day for too many days isn’t helpful. If you feel like you’re not making any progress or able to move past a topic after a few writing sessions, you should contact your health care provider.
4. Write only for yourself
Remember that you are only writing for yourself. You may want to hide or destroy what you wrote so that you don’t hold back from sharing certain thoughts. This writing is for your eyes only, so be open and honest with yourself. And don’t worry about grammar or punctuation.
What to expect — and what to avoid
If you think you want to write about a particular topic, but find that you cannot because it would be too upsetting, then don’t. It may be a sign that you’re not quite ready to explore that subject. Instead, as you get started, focus on situations or events that you feel like you can handle.
You may feel a little bit sad or depressed after writing, especially after the first day or two. It is completely normal and lasts only a short time. It can be helpful to plan some time to yourself after your writing sessions to reflect on any issues and support yourself.
When to discontinue the exercise
Mirgain cautions that writing exercises aren’t for everyone. If the practice evokes strong feelings that you cannot cope with, you should stop.
“Experiencing symptoms of hypervigilance, stress or distress are signals to discontinue your journaling exercise,” she says.
If you experience stress, she recommends practicing diaphragmatic breathing, reaching out to a friend or loved one, or going for a walk. And if you continue to experience lingering feelings, you may benefit from the support of a psychologist, counselor or physician.
“You can write your way to a new chapter, reminding yourself that you and you alone are the author of your own life story,” she says.
“Through journaling, you realize that you have the power to say this is not how my story is going to end and that my journey has just begun.”