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July 13th, 2016


On Wellness

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An Effective Tool for Reducing Emotional Distress


 Whether you’re trying to manage anxiety, reduce stress, or cope with depression, journaling can help control your symptoms and improve your mood.  Specifically, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center website, journaling can:

  • Help you identify what is negatively affecting you;
  • Help you prioritize problems, fears, and concerns;
  • Help you track any symptoms day-to-day so that you can recognize triggers and learn ways to better control them; and
  • Provide an opportunity for positive self-talk and to identify negative thoughts and behaviors.  (University of Rochester Medical Center).
            Journaling is simply “writing down your thoughts and feelings to understand them more clearly,” according to Beth Holloway, RN, M.Ed., and Gail Nelson, MS, APRN, BC.  Journaling on a regular basis can positively affect both mental and physical health.  “And if you struggle with stress, depression, or anxiety, keeping a journal can help you gain control of your emotions and improve your mental health.”  (See sources at end of article.)

              Dr. James W. Pennebaker, a leading researcher on the power of journaling for healing purposes, believes that the positive outcomes of expressive writing occur on multiple levels – cognitive, emotional, social and biological.  In his paper, “Writing and Health: Some Practical Advice,” Dr. Pennebaker states that “Writing about emotional upheavals in our lives can improve physical and mental health.”  Furthermore, “[c]onfronting deeply personal issues has been found to promote physical health, subjective well-being, and selected adaptive behaviors.”   Pennebaker’s subjects have reported that writing about upsetting experiences, although painful in the days of writing, produces long-term improvements in mood and indicators of well-being compared with writing about control topics. 

The Benefits
            Journaling can improve physical health as well.  In one study, students were asked to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings on an important emotional issue, with the only rule being that once they started writing, each should continue uninterrupted until the 15-30 time limit had expired.  The researcher found that writing or talking about emotional topics had beneficial influences on immune function, including t-helper cell growth, antibody response to Epstein-Barr virus, antibody response to hepatitis B vaccinations, and short-term lowered heart rate.

      Other studies have demonstrated that emotional writing can influence the frequency of physician visits, immune function, stress hormones, blood pressure, and a number of social, academic, and cognitive variables. These positive health effects have been shown to hold across cultures, age groups, and diverse samples. 

  • Pain Management

            Expressive writing can also improve control over pain and pain severity.  For example, in a pair of randomized controlled trials, patients were assigned to write about either emotional or non-emotional topics.  In their 9-week study, Graham et al. divided 102 chronic pain center outpatients into an anger-expression group and a control group.  The people in the anger-expression group showed greater improvements in control over pain and depressed mood, and marginally greater improvements in pain severity.  These findings suggest that expressing anger may be helpful for individuals suffering from chronic pain.

The Simplicity of Journaling

   Journaling is not “keeping a diary” because it is not a description of activities; it is writing about emotions and any events or beliefs that have caused distress.  Journaling often reduces the strength of negative emotions and helps the writer process (think through) whatever happened.  One way people use journals is in therapy, as a point of discussion; others use it on their own.

              And every person’s journal is different.  The point is to write about whatever matters to you.  One of the best aspects of journaling is that no one ever has to see what you’ve written (a fact that enables people to express their feelings more freely).  If you write on paper, you can always hide it, shred it, etc.  If you type your thoughts and emotions into a computer, you can save your writing as a password-protected document.  Or you can simply delete it. 

              There are two important recommendations for maximizing the benefits of journaling:

  • Write a little bit every day – for at least twenty minutes.(You don’t need to follow any particular structure when writing.)
  • Write about whatever’s truly on your mind.This can include thoughts about past events or even anticipated events, behaviors, or feelings. Feel free to express things that you might not normally express socially because this is an opportunity to get emotions out and to process them without feeling judged.

              Other than those two instructions, there is remarkable flexibility in journaling.  Some people write in the morning, others keep a notebook nearby and journal throughout the day.  Still others write at the end of the day and/or keep their journal at their bedside, for the recording of dreams when they wake up.

If you’re uncertain how to begin, ask yourself:
             1) How am I feeling right now? (You can free-write in paragraph form or make a list of all the feelings that come to mind);
              2) Am I struggling with something, someone, or a situation today?; and/or
              3) What three things am I grateful for today?

              According to Elizabeth Norton, an L.I.C.S.W. at Mental Health Programs, Inc., “I often suggest writing in a journal to clients who are seeking to feel better emotionally or work through a difficult issue or time in their lives.  Writing can feel freeing and can speed up the process of rediscovering one’s real feelings and truth.  Many clients enthusiastically journal on their own.  I’ve heard comments like ‘I just want to express my real feelings about a situation,’ ‘I want to learn to let go,’ and ‘I want to feel in control.’  Journaling enables all of the above.  It can feel quite uplifting and it has the potential to change your life.”

              The psychological benefits of journaling are so well accepted that senior centers often form writing groups to help members cope with change as well as derive support through illness.  In addition, older seniors enjoy journaling because it’s a way they tell their story, their truth about their lives, recorded and often read to a loved one or shared at a later time.

              With journaling such an easy way to improve one’s mental and physical well-being, we at “On Wellness” wanted to make sure that we addressed this topic in one of our very first issues.  We hope you found the information helpful and that you will either try journaling yourself or suggest it to a friend or family member.

              For more information, please consult the articles/book cited here, the University of Michigan Depression Center, online at, and/or the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s document, “Writing & Journaling: A Tool For Recovery,” at
University of Rochester Medical Center website on “Journaling for Mental Health,” 
Graham, J. E., et al., “Effects of written anger expression in chronic pain patients: making meaning from pain.” J Behav Med  31(3). 2008: 201-212.  Print.
Pennebaker, J.W., Graybeal, A., “Patterns of natural language use: Disclosure, Personality, and Social Integration.” Curr Dir Psychol Sci  10(3). 2001: 90-93.  Print.
Pennebaker, J.W., Writing about Emotional Experiences as a Therapeutic Process.”  Psychological Science, 8(3). 1997: 162-166.  Print.
Pennebaker, J.W., “Confession, inhibition, and disease.” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 22. New York, NY: Academic Press, 1989.  Print.
Pennebaker, J.W., “Writing & Health:  Some Practical Advice.”
“Writing & Journaling: A Tool for Recovery,” National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).



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