Journaling Offers Proven Cognitive AND Physical Benefits in Managing Stress
I’ve kept a journal for as long as I can remember. My journals are usually written in a rambling stream of consciousness that would make even Walter Mitty say “WTF?” But more often, I write about what’s on my mind at the time, whether it’s a challenge I’m facing or a decision that I must make.
Keeping a journal is therapeutic to me, not only because I can be candid, but also because it allows me to really see situations more clearly so I can take the right course of action for myself. It was especially cathartic for me to keep a journal during my 2007 battle with cancer as it allowed me to more clearly recognize and manage my emotions and express myself. It also served to document the entire ordeal for me since I knew that I would never be able to recount everything after treatment, due to some serious “chemo-brain.” I recently found that journal from six years ago and while it was bittersweet re-reading it, I was glad to discover things that I didn’t remember about events, my treatment, and most importantly, about myself.
The kind of journaling I’m referring to isn’t the commonly perceived “log” of the days’ events. It’s the kind that can work as a self-improvement tool; one that can ultimately lead to a clearer understanding of events and situations that yield more effective problem-solving skills. Moreover, writing regularly in a journal positively affects not only emotional well-being, but physical well-being too (I’ll get to that in a moment).
Anne Frank is one of the most well-known journaler. Her writing not only recorded unimaginable historical events, but just as importantly gives us access into the mind of a human being whose resilience and optimism prevailed in the midst of palpable fear and distress. Anne never thought anyone would ever read her diary. She wrote as a way to cope with her emotions and relieve stress during the direst of circumstances.
How Journaling Affects Our Physical Well-being
Scientific evidence supports the assertion by many that journaling on a regular basis can truly help one de-stress. Studies have shown that the very act of writing can calm nerves, diminish stress and bolster healing.
A clinical study by the Department of Psychiatry, State University of New York at Stony Brook School of Medicine, sought to determine if writing about stressful life experiences affects disease status in patients with asthma or rheumatoid arthritis. The study concluded that “Patients with mild to moderately severe asthma or rheumatoid arthritis who wrote about stressful life experiences had clinically relevant changes in health status at 4 months compared with those in the control group.” (See study at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10208146).
More compelling is the conclusion from a University of Texas at Austin psychologist and researcher, James Pennebaker, who contends that regular journaling strengthens immune cells, called T-lymphocytes (see article at http://psychcentral.com/lib/the-health-benefits-of-journaling/000721). Journaling is also frequently recommended in therapy for victims who were harmed from a traumatic event. Writing about the event helps them more effectively process the event and in turn, let go of emotions that can hinder the healing process.
Dr. Pennebaker has written a book specifically dedicated helping these individuals. The book is called: “Writing to Heal: A guided journal for recovering from trauma & emotional upheaval” (New Harbinger Publications, 2004).
There are also cognitive benefits to journaling that include sharper problem-solving skills. Journaling engages both hemispheres of the brain which helps us sort our experiences more clearly, providing us with a better understanding of the situation and how to find the most appropriate solutions to our challenge.
I suppose journaling isn’t for everyone, but if there’s another way to help keep your stress-levels in check and at the same time improve your clarity and problem-solving skills, why not give it a try? You might finally be able to come up with that “Aha” solution to cope with any challenges you are having, whether they be work-related or personal.
Do you keep a journal? If so, what do you think is the greatest benefit to journaling? I’d love to hear your thoughts.