Most of us remember daily diaries from when we were kids. If we were girls, our diaries may have had pretty pictures on the front and a little locket. But what was outside wasn’t really important. It was what was inside that mattered.
Little did many of us know that our journals actually helped keep us healthy–not only emotionally and psychologically but also physically.
James Pennebaker, a social scientist and researcher at the University of Texas, has done groundbreaking work for the last twenty years on the healing power of writing. In his 1997 book Opening Up, he documents the first research he did on the topic. Curious what the effects of writing down one’s experiences are, he did a research study to find out. What he discovered surprised even him.
The group of students who wrote just once about difficult experiences and their emotions around those experiences experienced a 50% reduction in doctors visits in the next six months compared to the six months before writing. They reported fewer symptoms for any chronic illnesses they had, greater happiness and even an increase in grades and higher success rates when looking for jobs!
If we think that an activity like writing in a journal is something that we do for ourselves, with no practical benefit, we are wrong: Pennebaker’s research has been repeated multiple times and the benefits of writing have been clearly demonstrated.
When we write, we process our life.
We know more and more about how important gut health is to process and digest our food–if we don’t have a healthy gut, we can’t take n the nutrients of our food. Similarly, we need to be able to process the meanings and feelings of our life to live a healthy, vital and successful life. Writing helps us do that!
Pennebaker’s research suggests that when you write in a journal, instead of just writing stream of consciousness, be mindful of your writing process:
Here are some steps for the most effective writing, that can help not only in journal writing but in every other form of writing that you do:
Five simple steps for transformative writing
1)Choose a topic to write about–you may go off topic as you write, but having some intention and direction at first can help you get to what’s important and not avoid it
2) Write about the specifics of the event/scene. Include as many details as possible–use all your senses.
3) Make sure to include your feelings. It’s not “sentimental” or “corny” to write about feelings. Writing about your emotions is one of the most important qualities for healing–and it makes for more interesting and relatable writing, too.
4)If you hit a block, write through it. Don’t worry about the “quality” of your writing or being completely coherent. Write about the block itself–keep your pen moving and come out of judgment mode. You can always revise later.
5) When you are done put your writing away for a little while to let the process digest and come to some closure. Take a short break—perhaps five minutes or a day. Then come back to your writing and re-read what you’ve written with compassion. Come out of judgment mind, and instead do some deep listening, becoming your own best witness.
Still not sure? Five reasons to get/ stay writing
- Writing helps us stay healthy. Expressing ourselves helps our immune system and help unblock the energetic blocks that form from repressed emotions and that can make us sick. Sharing our experiences on the page gives us many of the benefits of meditation: we get distance from ourselves so that we are not as reactive and at the same time, with that distance, we can cultivate our own self-compassion.
- Writing help us explore our thoughts and emotions, through the privacy and safety of the page, as I’ve written about before. Writing allows us to process our experiences language without needing to worry about what others will think of us; it allows us to explore, make mistakes, revise, and learn.
- Writing help us can record our experiences and remember them. Writing about our experience gives us some mastery over the mystery of time itself and to see both our changes and continuity.
- Writing help us become better witnesses of ourselves and of our own lives. Writing can be like a best friend, a compassionate witness, a sister to cry and laugh with. It makes us feel less alone and more understood.
And if you want support with your writing, I have just a few spaces left in my Monday writing workshops. You may also enjoy my one day mini-retreat/ workshop on Writing as a Contemplative Practice Friday September 21. Or reach out to me for information about working one-on-one.
As always, please share this with any friends who might be interested, and email me to say hi or ask questions.