Writing for HealthI hate to admit it but it’s true: I’m terrible at keeping a journal. I probably have half a dozen notebooks lying around, each one with no more than 20 entries before I got caught up in other things, made excuses, didn’t have the time, or just plain forgot. Reading them when I stumble upon them is always interesting and sometimes helpful. Memories are seldom totally accurate. Time has a way of changing perspective. But, nonetheless, I’ve never found a way to manage my time and my life so that I could make a daily entry into a diary or blog.

But new research is making me think about trying again. It seems that keeping a journal has benefits besides preserving baby’s first word, recording my pleasure during a vacation or providing a place to put my strong feelings about what so and so did and what I wish I’d said. Writing about my feelings can actually improve my health.

James Pennebaker, PhD at the University of Texas and Joshua Smyth, PhD at Syracuse University have done studies that show that writing about our feelings can boost the immune systems of people suffering from asthma, arthritis and even HIV/AIDS. For those of us who always seem to have more tasks than hours every day, it is heartening to note that they have found that even 15 to 20 minutes a day of reflective writing is all it takes.

Pannebaker divided 37 HIV/AIDS patients into two groups. One group was asked to write about their negative life experiences. The other group was instructed to simply write about their daily schedules. All of the participants wrote for only four sessions of 30 minutes each. The research team found that those who wrote about their experiences showed an increase in the functioning of their immune system. Unfortunately, the elevated immune function didn’t hold beyond three months but the fact that simply writing could affect it at all is remarkable.

Pennebaker has suggested that writing about their distress helped the patients reduce their anxiety and helped them cope. I wonder what would happen if people made writing a daily habit.

Smyth’s team studied 107 people with asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. He asked half the group to write for 20 minutes a day for three days about the most stressful event they could remember. The control group was asked to write about their daily plans. Four months later, 70 people in the group that wrote about their stress showed improvement. Only 37 of the control group improved.

Other researchers have found that writing about our feelings is more beneficial when it is directed in positive ways. Writing pages of negative comments and angry and depressed feelings can lead to feeling more angry and depressed. Focusing on only the pain of a traumatic experience can reopen an old emotional wound or increase feelings of helplessness or vulnerability. Susan Lutgendorf, PhD at the University of Iowa found that it’s important for writers to focus on how they can find meaning in their pain to benefit from the journaling. Similarly, Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania stresses the importance of finding meaning in life’s challenging events if we are to grow and be happy.

Writing out our feelings and our insights about the difficult events in our lives can have long-term as well as short-term effects. Participants in studies, especially those who continued to write regularly, have reported fewer visits to doctors and hospitals, reduced blood pressure, improved mood, reduced depression, reduced pain and improvement of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

Convinced? Here’s all you need to do to improve your health and well-being through writing.

  • Set aside 15 to 20 minutes a day for three or four consecutive days each week. (That’s less than a total of an hour a week that you are devoting to your own good health.) You don’t have to do it every day. You can decide which days of the week work best for you. Take the other days off guilt-free.
  • Do your best to create a time and space that is free of distractions. Turn off your cell phone notifications. Think about getting up a little before the rest of the family or staying up a bit later so you have the quiet you need to think.
  • Write about an emotional issue that has affected you deeply. You can write about the same event every day or you can choose something different every time you sit down to write. That’s up to you. Go beyond stating the facts. Explore your feelings and reflect on how that event altered the course of your life. Think and write about ways that event can be seen as having helped you grow. Researchers think that it is the combination of emotional expression and cognitive reflection that makes this type of journaling more helpful than simply keeping a diary.
  • Push yourself to write for the entire block of time. Even if you stop to think for a good portion of the time during this exercise, focusing your attention on your emotional life and working to make new sense of it (or affirming the growth that came from it already) for the entire time period will have a positive effect on your life.
  • No one will see this journal except you so don’t worry about grammar or spelling. It’s fine to use bullets and lists for part of it if that is easier for you. But do work on finding ways to express your deepest feelings and your thoughts about them.
  • Once a month, take some time to read over your entries. Write for 15 minutes about what you are learning about yourself and what you are doing or would like to do to support your own growth and change.

It may take time to make expressive journaling a habit. If you skip a day once in a while, don’t let it become a reason to quit. Simply recommit and start again. If you do, you should have noticeable improvement in your health and in your general sense of well-being within months.

I have made plenty of false starts at journaling. Looking back, I think I expected myself to write too much and for too long to fit it into my life. Fifteen to 20 minutes a day for a few days a week? That I can manage, especially if it helps me be healthier and happier.