Journal Writing: A Prescription for Good Health
by Marla Hardee Milling
When your body is sick or injured, you probably seek medical attention and follow a regimen of prescriptions, rest, and even physical therapy. But, did you know that keeping a journal might aid in your recovery? There is also some evidence that healthy people who keep journals report a greater well-being and fewer medical problems.
"I credit my journal for turning my life around, for getting me up and out into the world again, for giving me the strength to carry on," says Keith Bellinger of Warren Center, Pennsylvania.
A car crash in 1991 left Bellinger, a construction worker at the time, with three crushed vertebrae in his back and neck. He had kept a journal for more than 20 years, but found his daily writing to be even more therapeutic after his accident.
"Unable to move without pain, I lost myself in my writing," says Bellinger. "Without it I would have drowned in self-pity. The previous entries took me back to the job sites, let me walk in the sunlight, lift heavy walls, and guide trusses to their marks atop beams high in the air. New entries explored the reasons I was now disabled, helped put into perspective religion versus spirituality, and strengthened my resolve to turn to a simpler, less stressful lifestyle."
Helping to Connect
Vickie Beck, a nurse psychotherapist at the University of Maryland, encourages most of her patients to keep journals.
"I tailor journals to the interest of my clients—particularly with children—and do not limit it to the documentation and expression of previous events," says Beck. "For those clients with an interest in poetry, I encourage them to write poems of any sort. For those who like music, I encourage them to write lyrics, which we can then talk about and set to music if they wish. Many of my clients bring their writing to their sessions, and it provides a focus for the sessions."
For small children who have not learned to write yet, Beck encourages them to keep a journal of pictures. She says this allows them to express and record their feelings and thoughts in a similar way to a written journal.
"Journal writing is not for everyone," Beck continues, "but for many it can be cathartic, insightful, and even fun. It can be shared or kept private, and still be beneficial as a tool for therapy. And long after therapy is needed, it can still be utilized to maintain health."
Writing About Chronic Conditions TOP
A four-month study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that writing down details about particularly stressful events can improve the health of patients who suffer from asthma and arthritis.
In the study, the participants were divided into two groups. One group simply wrote about their plans for the day. Patients in the other group wrote about their feelings surrounding a stressful event in their lives. All of the people continued their regular medical treatment, and had their condition evaluated at two weeks, two months, and four months. Researchers found that 47% of the patients who wrote about their feelings showed improvement while only 24% of the other group did.
Dr. Arthur A. Stone, co-author of the study from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, is quick to point out that the study did not focus on journal writing.
"We looked at writing about the most stressful experience of one's life in an emotional way," says Dr. Stone. "How is this different than journaling? Well, for one thing, we don't know what people write about in their journals or about how they write. In other words, if a person was to simply record the day's events in a log-type manner, then this would be a very different task than the emotional writing about stressful events that we did. But perhaps some individuals journal in a very emotional way, attempting to solve problems and by providing their journal with detailed, emotional reactions to their life. This is clearly more similar to our task."
In another study, published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, researchers examined the effect of writing about a traumatic event. In this study, some participants focused on journaling about emotions related to the event, others focused on emotions and thoughts, while others simply wrote factually about the daily news. Interestingly, writing about emotions alone increased negative symptoms from the trauma, while those who focused on both thoughts and feelings developed a sense that the stressful event had produced positive effects in their lives.
Keeping Student Journals TOP
Dr. Charles M. Anderson, graduate coordinator in the Department of Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, had completed research on the topic of writing and health. His book, Writing and Healing: Toward an Informed Practice, is designed to explore ways in which writing can promote healing.
"Most of the writing I have dealt with is from students who work to make sense of loss, pain, and traumatic events," says Dr. Anderson. "Events such as sexual abuse, violence at schools and home, and even violence depicted in movies and on television create significant difficulties for many students. Writing is a natural and attractive technology for addressing and overcoming the effects of such events."
While Anderson believes journals can provide beneficial health effects, he feels there are also limitations.
"In my experience," Dr. Anderson says, "journal writing reveals traumatic images and promotes a very short-term cathartic effect, but does little to reintegrate the traumatic event into the life narrative of the sufferer. To be healed, the sufferer must reintegrate the event into his or her life."
Getting Started TOP
Do not let the blank journal page intimidate you. Just start writing and write everyday until it becomes a daily habit. Books like Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity and Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down The Bones: Freeing the Writer Within offer suggestions for finding the freedom to write down your emotions and feelings. And if you are more comfortable with a keyboard than with a pen, type away. The key is to get your feelings down, regardless of how you do it.
Keeping a journal is particularly effective for people undergoing long periods of grief, such as the loss of a spouse or child. The journal serves as a vessel for your emotions that you may be unable or unwilling to share.
Need some help getting started? In her journal-writing workshops, Charlene Kingston, of Writing the Journey, suggests some basic topics that will get you started.
The American Institute of Stress
Mental Health America
Canadian Mental Health Association
Canadian Psychiatric Association
Anderson CM, MacCurdy MM. Writing and Healing: Toward an Informed Practice. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English; 1999.
Plaut T. Symptom reduction after writing about stressful experiences. JAMA. 1999;282(19):1811-12.
Ullrich PM, Lutgendorf SK. Journaling about stressful events: effects of cognitive processing and emotional expression. Ann Behav Med. 2002;24:244-250.
Writing the Journey website. Available at: http://www.WritingTheJourney.com/.
Last reviewed March 2013 by Brian Randall, MD
Last Updated: 3/28/2013