The Healing Powers Of Keeping A Journal (And How To Stick With It)

The Healing Powers Of Keeping A Journal (And How To Stick With It)

By Barbara Stepko

Get an injection, down those pills, and follow your M.D.'s advice to the letter: These are all pretty familiar forms of medicine. But if you want to enhance those healing powers, you might also consider something as simple as picking up a pen.

Studies suggest that expressive writing (as in, the kind that begins "Dear diary...") can offer some very real health benefits -- among them, helping wounds heal faster, reducing stress and fatigue in cancer patients, and easing the symptoms of conditions such as asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and irritable bowel syndrome.

"Journal therapy is all about using personal material as a way of documenting an experience, and learning more about yourself in the process," says Kathleen Adams, LPC, a Colorado-based psychotherapist and author of Journal to the Self. "It lets us say what's on our minds and helps us get -- and stay -- healthy through listening to our inner desires and needs."

Never been the journaling type? To get started, follow these tips.

Choose your moments.

"Don't plan to write every day," Adams cautions. "When there's that expectation, the first day that's missed, all of the air is let out of the balloon. It's like a New Year's resolution in that way. For some, once a week is enough; for others, five times a week is just right." There are no rules, but it's helpful to have a strategy when first getting started to develop consistency -- for example, check in with yourself three times a week. The length of time isn't as significant as what Adams calls the doingness, or the pattern. Set timer for 10 minutes; you can go beyond that or put down your pen. Develop a rhythm, so it can be done, say, three times a week for three or four weeks. Once it becomes a habituated response to stress or management, then the frequency can back off.

Ease into it.

"Before picking up a pen, try an entrance meditation to transition into a state of mindfulness," Adams says. Your ritual might be savoring a cup of tea, listening to classical music, trying a few yoga poses or just petting your cat on your lap, according to Adams. It can even be as brief as closing your eyes and taking three deep breaths.

Start scribbling.

When some people think of therapeutic writing, they think of free-form (or abstract) writing -- basically jotting whatever pops into your head. But when you sit down with a blank piece of paper and no plan or structure, there’s a likelihood that you’ll venture into some not-so-good places, Adams says. When writing about emotionally difficult subjects, short, structured journal writing works better.

Some tactics to try:

  • Sentence stems: Write down the first part of a sentence, such as I feel the most important thing to do is...; What I want is... then complete each one. Sounds easy, right? It is, and that’s the beauty of the exercise: "There is an immediate gratification. If the only thing you have to do is finish a sentence, and you accomplish that, then you feel successful," Adams explains. "What's more, it doesn’t take long to realize that you're telling yourself surprising and revealing things -- and that element of surprise is one of the most healing aspects of writing. Our conscious mind may be driving the bus, but it's not always in charge."
  • Five-Minute Sprint: Set the timer for five minutes, write down anything that comes to mind, then put the pen down. Use a prompt that you can actively engage in like "How am I feeling?" or "How do I want my day to be?" "Five minutes may seem like a ridiculously short amount of time," Adams notes. "But when you know that's all you have, you get busy."
  • Behavior research: Simply put, practice how you’re going to react in a specific situation so when the time comes you’re prepared for anything. "No matter what happens, no matter what you're hit with, you feel competent and ready to handle it," Adams says. "You feel powerful."
  • Springboard: Write a word with one letter on each line (healing, for example), then write open sentences or thoughts that start with each letter. “I’m always surprised by the insights that come from working with this goofy structure," Adams says. "Unhook your brain and don’t think about it so much -- just let it come."

Now reflect.

After each entry, re-read what you've written, then give yourself a sentence or two of feedback. Start with "I'm surprised by --" or "I'm aware of --" then use those prompts to help you sum things up. "If you just close the book and move on, that 'aha' moment will fade away," Adams says. This part, aptly named reflection writing, is very important; it can reveal deeper, more profound levels of insight, she adds.

One final thing to keep in mind: The more balanced your journal is the better. "When you only concentrate on the negative, it doesn't represent the whole picture," Adams says. "Most healing journals deal with things that are challenging and difficult, but also the sweet, everyday things. Just a bit of light or little moments of beauty from the day to balance out what may be a bleak picture." See your journal -- and life in general -- as a tapestry, Adams says. When the threads are woven together, it makes a rich mosaic of bright and dark.

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