Many people instinctively put their thoughts down in a journal. The most popular reasons people turn to journaling are: to download their feelings in a non-judgemental space, to explore an idea, to work out a solution to a problem, to gain perspective or find meaning in something, or to connect with themselves.
Scientific proof that expressive writing impacts health
Did you know there is scientific proof that expressive writing – when we disclose our feelings on the page - has benefits for our mental and physical health?
A team of social scientists, led by American social psychologist James Pennebaker, have been conducting studies since the mid-1980s on the effects of expressive writing on our emotional and physical health. They studied groups of people who experienced trauma or were immuno-compromised with a focus on their immune function. What they found was that people who wrote about emotional upheavals and traumas four times a week for 20 minutes each time, visited their doctors fewer times in the months following than their peers who wrote about neutral topics. Not only did they visit doctors less often but those with rheumatoid arthritis and respiratory illness also found a decrease in their symptoms. This is an interesting result, but why did it happen?
Secrets and stress
We know there is a correlation between mental stress and our physical health. Generally, the more stressed out we are, the more our immune system is taxed. This makes it easier to catch a cold or the flu, or be susceptible to other stress-induced diseases. So how does expressive writing help with that?
Have you ever kept a big secret and been really stressed out about it? That's the same idea here. People who keep their feelings to themselves, who don't disclose their emotional trauma, tend to be more stressed out, which impacts their immune systems.
If there's something on your mind — maybe something that happened in the recent past or even something that happened a long time ago that caused you emotional pain — and you haven't expressed it, it may be causing you some stress. Expressive writing is a great way to disclose thoughts and emotions safely, in a nonjudgmental space. Of course, this does not replace professional help, but it can complement therapy if you choose to share with a therapist what you’ve learned from your writing. However, when you sit down to write, it's important that you don't write for an audience. That is the difference between expressive writing and other types of writing.
How do you do it?
One of the techniques of expressive writing is called the “free write.” This is where you are free to write about whatever comes to your mind. If you’re beginning, set a timer for a minimum of five minutes. You can increase the time with more practice. Start by writing on a topic (such as whatever is bothering you) and then go where the pen leads you without worrying about grammar, spelling, punctuation, or going off on tangents. It's important to keep the pen moving (or your fingers typing) so you don’t accidentally start editing your work. If you run out of things to say, write about the fact that you’ve run out of things to say, or simply repeat what you’ve already written. Give yourself a few minutes to self-reflect or just take some deep breaths after you write before moving on to anything else. Tune in to how you feel. It makes the experience more complete.
Some prompts to get you started
If you don’t already know what you want to write about, you can start with these:
1. I remember when…
2. My most difficult relationship is…
3. I worry about…
After this, you can find many more journaling prompts online.
Expressive writing is a useful, therapeutic tool that can be part of a wellness plan. Whether you write about the little things that bother you or major traumatic events, there is evidence that many people benefit physically and emotionally.
Taslim Jaffer is a freelance writer and writing instructor based in British Columbia, Canada.