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Body Week

Why Journaling Is Good For Your Health (And 8 Tips To Get Better)

Journaling can profoundly improve your well-being. Two experts reveal their most effective tips for personal writing.

[Photo: Flickr user Pedro Ribeiro Simões]

I’ve been journaling for years now. Twelve years to be exact. When I sometimes tell people "I journal" some assume it has to do with my job as a journalist–reporting on day to day life. Others tease me that I'm doing the same thing teenagers do—"Dear Diary, these are my feelings" and all. When I first began writing even a single page was excruciating. But now journaling is the favorite part of my day: I feel better both mentally and physically in the days and weeks after writing down my thoughts.

Surprisingly, though, journaling's feeling of well-being isn’t just psychosomatic. The practice has very real physical health benefits for the people who do it. According to Dr. James Pennebaker, a psychologist and leading expert in the field of Expressive Writing—a type of journaling that usually involves exploring issues that can literally correct the course of your life—journaling strengthens immune cells called T-lymphocytes and has been shown to be associated with drops in depression, anxiety, and increases in positive mood, social engagement, and quality of close relationships.

"The most striking research on EW has been done with markers of physical health and biological changes," says Pennebaker. "We know from multiple studies that there are enhancements in immune function, drops in blood pressure, improvements in sleep, and drops in other markers of stress. People go to the doctor less in the months after EW. Other studies find faster wound healing, greater mobility among people with arthritis, and the list goes on."

What does journaling entail? It's an amalgamation of personal, rational fact-based reporting along with an exploration of your sometimes-irrational, always-important inner feelings. There are some weeks where I’ll journal every day and then there will be some stretches where I go a month without writing a single word. The thing about expressive writing and other types of journaling is that it’s not just the act of processing your thoughts—something you could simply do by thinking about them—that brings about these massive benefits. It’s the act of writing itself that seems to produce these results.

"Writing accesses you’re the left hemisphere of the brain, which is analytical and rational," says Maud Purcell, a psychotherapist and journaling expert. "While your left brain is occupied, your right brain is free to do what it does best, i.e. create, intuit and feel. In this way, writing removes mental blocks and allows us to use more of our brainpower to better understand ourselves and the world around us."

Intrigued yet? I thought so. But maybe you’re like me when I first started journaling 12 years ago and don’t know where to start. Here’s eight tips from Pennebaker and Purcell that will see you journaling in no time.

1) Try to get used to the pen again.

In today’s world it’s all keyboards and touch screens. Few write by pen anymore. But when it comes to journaling pen and paper can have measurable benefits over the keyboard.

"I find that most of my patients intuitively know that hand-writing their thoughts in a journal is more effective than composing them on a laptop," says Purcell. "That said, there’s research to support this. It appears that writing stimulates an area of the brain called the RAS (reticular activating system), which filters and brings clearly to the fore the information we’re focusing on."

An added benefit of writing by pen is that it keeps us from editing our words over time. Yet many people, especially those in our 20s and 30s, have lost the muscle memory of cursive writing, which can make it feel slow and uncomfortable when we try to jump back into it. Know this is temporary. In short time you will feel comfortable writing by hand again.

"Especially for the 20- and 30-somethings," says Purcell, "when I can convince these folks to give good old fashioned cursive a try they’re amazed by the results; how much more quickly their handwritten journaling brings them peace and problem resolution."

2) If you can’t stand cursive, then choose the medium best for you.

Try as you might, maybe you just can’t get into journaling by pen. That’s okay.

Thankfully today there are a huge number of mediums to choose from. I personally like writing by hand with a V5 Hi-Techpoint ink pen with a 0.5mm tip (about $3 at any office supply store). Yeah, that’s specific, but it’s the perfect pen for me that allows my cursive to flow smoothly over my Moleskine notebook pages. But if pen and paper doesn’t work for you there are excellent digital options including general word processors like Microsoft’s Word or Apple’s Pages, or more specific "distraction free" writing apps like Ommwriter.

Or maybe the best medium for you is the touch screen. There are literally hundreds of writing and journaling apps available on iOS and Android.

3) Choose a reasonable time limit.

It used to be advised that people set a page limit—for example 3 pages—for every day they write. But both Pennebaker and Purcell agree that more effective journaling comes by setting a time limit for each day you write.

"My bias given everyone’s hectic schedules is to choose a time limit to which you can reasonably adhere, even if it’s just 5 minutes to start," says Purcell. A time limit gives the writer an incorporeal goal, which can greatly help people when they start journaling. Seeing three blank pages ahead of you can be daunting, but an invisible time goal seems much less challenging.

Pennebaker says he has people write for a flat 15-to-20 minutes a day. "The only rule is to write continuously."

4) You needn't be Shakespeare.

Most beginning writers, whether they are journaling, journalists, or writing a novel tend to fall into the trap of feeling they need to be profound in their writing with great insights into the human condition. When it comes to journaling (and most forms of professional writing) trying to be profound is self-defeating. It’s an act you put on for others—or in personal journaling, for yourself. True profundity comes naturally, even accidentally. Pretentiousness is what results when people set out to be profound.

Shakespeare was profound due to genius and careful observance of human nature over a period of decades. Good for him, but when it comes to personal journaling you don’t need to be profound. You just need to write.

"I tell my patients to forget spelling, and punctuation, and just make it a ‘stream of consciousness’ exercise," says Purcell. "Since journaling can bring to the fore, information that is just below the level of consciousness, let it flow!"

5) Don’t edit.

Related to the above...Journaling is meant to get your thoughts down and explore areas of your mind you maybe didn’t want to go. Journaling is not a term paper. No one is grading you on spelling, grammar, punctuation, or structure. If you edit, you stop to think, which is when you cease to naturally explore and reveal the thoughts in your head.

"The object of journaling is to write, not think," says Purcell. "Thinking gets in the way of what we know, intuitively, and therefore defeats the purpose of journaling all together. Journaling also allows us to explore avenues we may not consciously want to explore, so if we stop to think, we may run from the very topic our journaling has just uncovered."

6) Journal in the same place every day.

You don’t need to lock yourself away in a secluded ivory tower to get your thoughts on paper, but both Pennebaker and Purcell agree that having one place where you journal is more conducive to good, introspective writing.

I have a favorite cafe in London I like to write in. Even though it can get noisy with the clinking cups and the murmurs of background conversation, I find this background noise soothing and it quickly lulls me into a state of mind where I’m engrossed in my pen flowing across my paper. If a cafe isn’t your thing, locking yourself in a quiet room in your house or even writing on a park bench could work just as well.

The important thing, says Purcell, is to "make it an appealing spot; one that’s cozy and has objects to see, smell and touch that inspire you: flowers, sentimental photos or memorabilia, and a wonderful beverage of your choice."

7) Leave room for a TOC.

This bit of advice is something I’ve been doing for years. Whenever I get a new Moleskine notebook I leave the first two double-sided pages blank. When I reach the end of that notebook—usually a year later‚ I’ll wait a while before I reread anything in it to put some distance between me and past thoughts.

But when I do reread it, I highlight passages or thoughts I think are important and will note them and their page number or journal entry date in the beginning of the journal. This creates a Table of Contents I can quickly refer back to to find important entries. I find this helps when I’m currently up against a challenge. I can find challenges in my past that seemed insurmountable, but that I ended up overcoming anyway. The important thing to remember if you do do this is to not edit your journal entries as you reread them.

The TOC approach was an idea that caused differing views among our experts.

"Some people like this kind of structure, some don’t," says Pennebaker. "Some like to go back and revise what they’ve written, most don’t. Some like to go back read what they have written; some don’t. The point is, you need to figure out what works best for you."

As for Purcell, she says "I love this idea. Surely, upon reflection, certain portions of the journal will seem more relevant to your life as a whole, and easy access to these areas will be helpful, especially during times of life confusion or distress. It’s wonderful to be reminded that you’ve gotten past seemingly hopeless situations of the past."

8) Keep it private—and secure.

Unless you are working with a clinical psychologist who is specifically asking you to journal so you can discuss your thoughts at your next session, both Pennebaker and Purcell stress that it’s important to keep your journaling private and keep the journal itself in a secure place.

"Find a safe and secure spot for your journal," says Purcell. "In order for it to be completely effective you must feel free to write the things you wouldn’t even tell your best friend."

"This is not a letter to someone else," agrees Pennebaker. "This should not be a document for others to judge you. If you want to write a book, fine. Write a book. Expressive writing is for you and you alone. If your writing could hurt other people’s feelings or their or your own reputation, destroy it when you are finished or hide it in a very secure location."

"The important thing is that your writing is for you only."