February 18, 2011
What Journaling Can Do For You
Note: I know of no studies so far that have been conducted with people with brain injury who journal. However, this kind of writing is beneficial for so many populations, it would undoubtedly be helpful for many people with brain injury. I do know that the people with brain injury in my journaling groups have benefited greatly from this practice.
There’s a good reason why journaling has been called “the writing cure.” The healing, change, and growth that come from journaling can appear on all levels of our being. Research psychologist James Pennebaker has long researched the links between writing to express emotions and healing. His work became the springboard for several hundred other studies. Here are just a few examples.
Dr. Pennebaker has conducted many studies in which people wrote for twenty minutes daily over several days about traumatic or stressful events and, importantly, how they felt about them. He calls this “expressive writing.” Blood tests administered before and after the days of writing showed that participants had stronger immune systems for up to several weeks afterward. The expressive writers also scored higher in psychological well-being, functioned better in daily tasks, took fewer medications, and had lower pain levels.
A now-famous study of expressive writing was reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association in April 1999. Researchers recruited participants with asthma or rheumatoid arthritis. They were given physical exams that checked the severity of their disease both before the writing and afterward. The expressive-writing group wrote about the most stressful event of their lives for three days, for 20 minutes at a time—a total of an hour. The control group wrote about emotionally neutral topics. Four months later, nearly 50 percent of the expressive-writing group showed “clinically significant” improvement in their condition! Only a quarter of the control group did. As the study conclusion said, “These gains were beyond those attributable to the standard medical care that all participants were receiving.”
In another study, people who had cancer did expressive writing for 20 minutes over several days about how their illness had changed them and how they felt about it. They reported that the writing helped to ease their stress about the cancer.
Along with improvements in physical health, other studies have shown marked improvements in social, psychological, and behavioral measures after sessions of expressive writing. For instance, journaling has been shown to improve mental health in people with panic attacks and eating disorders, or who were victims of sexual abuse.
Why does journaling about traumatic events have a positive effect on physical ailments? No one knows for sure yet, but here’s one theory: If we actively inhibit or restrain our emotions, especially about painful experiences, we have to exert effort not to think about or feel them. This puts a lot of stress on our bodies and minds. On the other hand, if we confront those emotions by writing about them, that releases the stress and frees up energy we can use for more positive things, like keeping our immune systems strong or boosting our emotional well-being.
Fortunately, this healthy divulging of painful emotions can be accomplished on paper, and it does not require involving another person—the only confidante you need is your journal.
Next time: Let’s write!