I’ve always liked the idea of keeping a journal, chronicling my life as it happens. And, over the years, I’ve kept one on and (mostly) off. Looking back, it seems that my periods of journaling corresponded to times when my life was in turmoil. Did this writing help? Did it serve any purpose other than rehashing what I was going through at the time? And would it be worthwhile to write during other times?
Delving into the research, I have found that writing about yourself and your experiences can significantly improve mental and physical health. I could cite a million papers if you were interested, that’s how overwhelming supportive the research is, but I’m going to focus on 2 researchers who spearheaded the work in this field.
These are 2 journals I keep, 1 on gratitude and 1 on Up With Me! stuff
Back in the 1980’s, Dr. James Pennebaker (at UT Austin, where I got my Master’s degree in Neuroscience) pioneered this work, establishing that writing about a traumatic, emotional event for 20 minutes a day for 4 days has dramatic effects on health. In the immediate short-term, this type of writing lowers mood, but in the long-term it boosts the immune system, lowers blood pressure, increases happiness, reduces anxiety and depression, and improves emotional resilience. In addition, patients suffering from various medical conditions (cancer, AIDS, arthritis, e.g.) show improvements specific to their individual condition. In other words, getting your negative, emotional experience out on paper, even if no one reads it or you end up throwing away whatever you wrote, is much more beneficial than keeping it in.
Why is expressive writing so helpful? For starters, this type of writing is a self-reflective tool. It forces you to to explore whatever your issue is and manage your feelings about it. Also, because the writing is spread out over 4 sessions (you could do it 4 days in a row or once a week for 4 weeks, the research doesn’t differ in terms of net results), you tend to move beyond your own perspective of the event and are able to see that of others, which is beneficial.
As for how often to write, Pennebaker found that writing fewer than 4 days cracks the surface of the issue but doesn’t allow the writer to go any deeper, so it’s kind of like tearing off a scab but not knowing what the underlying injury really is. On the other hand, writing more often creates the potential for rumination and over analysis of the trauma, neither of which is helpful. Four days isn’t a rule, but it’s a good starting point and what has been supported by the science.
Adapting Pennebaker’s work, Laura King (at the University of Missouri) was interested in finding out if writing about something positive might confer similar effects as writing about something negative. King utilized the same writing session length (20 minutes every day for 4 days) and conducted a study in which participants wrote about their future best possible self (BPS). This is essentially your idealized self, a personalized representation of everything you’d want or like to be. King’s results were similar to those of Pennebaker in that overall health and mood improved. But, King found that mood improved significantly more when writing about BPS than about past trauma (her experimental groups wrote about BPS, past trauma, both, or a neutral event), and there was no negative short-term effect when writing about BPS.
Like writing about a traumatic experience, writing about your BPS forces self-reflection. This type of writing helps you to identify, organize, and prioritize your goals, and doing it on a regular basis can increase your positive expectations about the future.
I love the idea of writing as therapy – and not just because it doesn’t cost anything, and it doesn’t take a huge amount of time to reap the benefits. Since I’ve started blogging, writing on a daily basis as part of my own therapeutic experience, I’ve definitely benefited. I’ve written about my own past trauma but I’ve also written about life goals and changes I’m working toward. The combination has helped me develop self-compassion and feel more connected to others, which ultimately makes me happier.
If you are interested in writing exercises to improve your health, check out these links for writing about past trauma, your future best possible self, and self-compassion. Write yourself to health!
King, L.A. (2001). The Health Benefits of Writing About Life Goals. Pers Soc Psychol Bull, 27:798-807.
Pennebaker James W. and John F. Evans. Expressive Writing: Words that Heal. Enumclaw: Idyll Arbor, Inc., 2014.
Sheldon, K. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How to increase and sustain positive emotion: the effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1, 73-82.