Journaling is a particular style of writing, typically done in form of keeping a diary or journal. The significant difference is that rather than it just being a form of keeping track of day to day events or stories, it is more commonly used as a way to process thoughts and emotions. There are different types of expressive writing that fall under this therapeutic journaling bracket- “Dear Diary”-style, stream of consciousness (just following the thoughts and feelings that come to mind), unsent letters, written dialogues, songs and raps to name a few.
Since the 80s there has been a lot of research into expressive writing, or journaling which has shown it to not only have benefits for emotional wellbeing - helping the writer come to terms with stressful events but also “real” or “measurable” physical health benefits.
One study by Pennebaker, a psychologist and researcher in the United States, even showed that regular journaling on emotional or stressful events strengthened the immune system by increasing T-lyphocyte immune cells in the blood. Whereas suppressing emotions, particularly negative feelings in a way to regulate mood and distress (psychology jargon for the “just get on with it” or “stay positive” approach to help you cope or feel better) showed a decrease in immune cells. Other research has shown that regular journaling decreases symptoms of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. In fact, it has so many physical benefits that scientific studies are struggling to keep up the pace with “proving” it.
The theory behind journaling and its impact on wellbeing is that by writing about the unexpressed thoughts and feelings from a stressful situation, you are reducing the impact of these stressors on your physical and mental health.
Before we progress further with the benefits of journaling I think we need address the issue of stress. So, what is stress? Stress is what our mind and body are under when we think we need to perform to survive, it is a physical response as much as it is mental. You’ve probably heard of the “fight or flight” response: it’s when our body responds to what our brain interprets as a threat e.g. a scary dog running at us, or someone threatening to punch us. This physiological reaction in our body is the actual definition of stress. Our brain, however, also interprets situations in the same way that aren’t necessarily life threatening or dangerous either, such as an exam, a job interview or someone shouting at us. And yet although we have an animal body that reacts in this way to protect itself e.g. increased blood pressure, muscular tension so that the body is ready to fight or run, needing to urinate, or experiencing pain to retreat and heal, we also have a conscious mind that controls our behaviour and expression, by rationally processing the situation. This part of our mind stops us from screaming at or running away from our interviewer; because rationally we know that they are not threatening our life (and have learnt that that’s not going to serve us well, especially if we want to get a job).
Our conscious rational mind isn’t what triggers the initial stress response- it is an irrational, instinctive emotion that triggers the stress. So this is where our rational mind can be detrimental as we sometimes don’t allow (or even be aware of) the feeling to be expressed. Remember that “stay positive” approach that a research paper mentioned earlier? That’s a form of suppression, which doesn’t mean you’ve “coped” or “dealt” with the stress of the situation. When we suppress our emotions the body at some level still responds as if it’s under threat because it thinks it has yet to respond to that emotional impulse to survive. Long term this has many negative implications for physical and mental health. But if you’re reading this blog then your main problem is probably chronic or unexplainable pain.
So how can writing a few emotional words relieve pain?
Scientific evidence supports that writing accesses the rational, analytical part of the brain and while this part is occupied, your emotional part is free to create, express and most importantly feel. By expressing this “feeling” part - allowing both rational and irrational thoughts to be voiced, you’re improving your cognitive functioning, emotional processing and returning the body back to homeostasis. To translate this scientific language: it helps you think more clearly, feel better and let go in a way that means you’re not running around shouting and punching, nor repressing it and making yourself ill from stress.
Science aside, I’ve had real life experiences of this technique working- for myself and for my clients. I have used it in the past to clear my thoughts and feelings, so am fully aware of its benefit. When I first used the technique, specifically on a topic around my painful periods I could not believe it! Just 30 minutes of a “tantrum on paper” and I was free of the pain that used to have me doubled up in agony, sometimes so badly it made me vomit. I gave up the prescription painkillers for that “once a month” for good. I then used it to figure out and relieve multiple pains I had suffered from for years: back pain, knee and hip pain, recurring shoulder tendonitis and even headaches. Now I teach my clients how to use this great self-therapy tool to resolve a multitude of symptoms.
Some benefits in a nutshell:
Clarify thoughts and express feelings
Feel better physically and mentally
Resolve past stressful experiences
Improve relationships and resolve disagreements
Learn to understand yourself (and others) better
Help you examine patterns, thoughts and beliefs that make you feel bad
Remove creative or expressive blocks
Lessen and even get rid of pain (THIS is the massive benefit you’ve been waiting for)!
So what are you waiting for? Give journaling a go!
I’ll be writing a few more blog posts to help give you some tips and advice on journaling. In the meantime, just try 15-20 minutes, or even try it for 4 days and see how you feel. If you have any questions on how or where to start, feel free to get in touch. My general advice is to start with a personal “stressful” topic and just let the words flow without thinking, judging, correcting and most importantly without censoring. Allow your emotions and thoughts to be fully expressed without fear of judgement or consequence and then once you’ve allowed the irrational part to roam free on paper, by all means use your rational thinking to compassionately reframe and/or express that “positive thinking” side of you. Don’t share it with anyone, you might even want to scribble over it, bin it or burn it. It’s about letting go, not holding on.
For advice and guidance or to arrange an appointment to discuss this in person, please contact me: 0161 88 318 68 or email@example.com.