Every now and then, when something's troubling me, I grab my trusty marble notebook, head to my favorite coffee shop, order a bottomless cup of decaf and start to write.
Anyone who's ever poured troubles onto paper knows how much better it makes us feel. But lately, science, too, is standing behind the pen and paper as a way to heal, both physically and mentally. What's more, experts in the field of "journaling," as it's known, say writing can help with just about anything that causes stress and anxiety -- anger, depression, even weight loss.
"A journal is like your close friend, you can say anything to it," says Jon Progoff, director of Dialogue House Associates, an organization in New York City that teaches intensive journal workshops. "Through the process of writing, there's healing, there's awareness and there's growth."
Progoff says his clients have had particular success in using journal writing to help with weight-loss and body-image issues. Through writing, he says, clients can analyze how their eating habits may be hurting their bodies, how to find ways to improve unhealthy habits, or just to accept that their bodies can be healthy and strong without being model-thin. Writing, he says, can help you become aware of how you may be abusing your body and ways you can nurture yourself.
How writing helps
Journal writing gained a scientific thumbs up last year when the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study about 112 patients with asthma or rheumatoid arthritis -- two chronic, debilitating diseases. Some of the patients wrote about the most-stressful event in their lives, and others wrote about emotionally neutral topics. When the study ended after four months, the writers who faced the skeletons in their emotional closets were healthier: Asthma patients showed a 19 percent improvement in lung function, and rheumatoid arthritis sufferers showed a 28 percent drop in the severity of their symptoms.
How does writing help? Re-searchers aren't quite sure. But James W. Pennebaker, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions (Guilford Press, 1997), says that writing about a painful event can reduce stress. This is important because stress can depress your immune system, raise your blood pressure and skew your hormonal function. In his studies, Pennebaker has found that people who write about traumatic events do improve their lives: students do better in class; the unemployed are more likely to find jobs. They're even able to be better friends, which benefits health because people who have close attachments to others tend to be healthier than those without close friends.
What's more, writing in a journal helps you uncover solutions and strengths that may be lying buried within you. Like meditation, journal writing allows your mind to focus quietly and completely on accepting something painful from your past or figuring out how best to deal with a problem. "Often we don't know what we know until we see it in black and white in front of us," says Kathleen Adams, director of the Center for Journal Therapy in Lakewood, Colo., and author of The Write Way to Wellness (The Center for Journal Therapy, 2000).
Journaling 101 What's the most-effective way to write? Here are some pencil pointers from the journal researchers:
* For four days in a row, set aside 20 or 30 minutes to write about what's bothering you. Don't worry about handwriting, grammar, spelling; just explore what you're feeling. If you've been fired, for instance, write about your fears ("What if I can't get a job?"), connections to your childhood ("My father was unemployed a lot and we never had enough money"), and your future ("I want to change careers").
* Next, read what you've written. If you're still obsessing about it, write more. For example, you may be grieving over a loved one's death. Write about it until you feel your grief subsiding. If you continue to feel overwhelmed, seek help from a therapist or support group.
* Try different writing styles: Write a speech to the boyfriend who dumped you, a forgiving letter to an abusive parent or a dialogue between your sedentary overweight self and the healthier self you want to be.
* Reread old journals only if it helps you heal. Otherwise, shelve or destroy them.