The Healing Powers of Keeping a Journal, and 3 Ways to Stick With It
Get an injection, down those pills, and follow your MDâ€™s advice to the letter: These are all pretty familiar forms of medicine. ButÂ if you want to enhanceÂ those healing powers, you might also consider something as simple as picking up a pen.
Studies suggest that expressive writing (as in,Â the kind that begins "Dear diary...") can offer some very real health benefitsâ€”among them, helping wounds heal faster, reducing stress and fatigue inÂ cancer patients,Â and easing the symptoms of conditions such as asthma,Â rheumatoid arthritis, and irritable bowel syndrome.
â€œJournal therapy is all about using personal material as a way of documenting an experience, and learning more about yourself in the process,â€ says Kathleen Adams, LPC, a Colorado-based psychotherapist and author of Journal to the Self ($12, amazon.com). â€œIt lets us say whatâ€™s on our minds and helps us getâ€”and stayâ€”healthy through listening to our inner desires and needs.â€
Never been the journaling type? To get started, follow these tips.
Choose your moments
â€œDonâ€™t plan to write every day,â€ Adams cautions. "When thereâ€™s that expectation, the first day that's missed, all of the air is let out of the balloon. Itâ€™s like a New Yearâ€™s resolution in that way. For some, once a week is enough; for others, five times a week is just right.â€ There are no rules, but itâ€™s helpful to have a strategy when first getting started to develop consistencyâ€”for example, check in with yourself three times a week. The length of time isnâ€™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
â€œBefore picking up a pen, try an entrance meditation to transition into a state of mindfulness,â€ 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.
When some people think of therapeutic writing, they think of free-form (or abstract) writingâ€”basically jotting whatever pops into your head. But when you sit down with a blank piece of paper and no plan or structure, thereâ€™s a likelihood that youâ€™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 isâ€¦; What I want isâ€¦Â then complete each one. Sounds easy, right? It is, and thatâ€™s the beauty of the exercise: â€œThere is an immediate gratification. If the only thing you have to do is finish a sentence, and you accomplish that, then you feel successful,â€ Adams explains. â€œWhatâ€™s more, it doesnâ€™t take long to realize that youâ€™re telling yourself surprising and revealing thingsâ€”and that element of surprise is one of the most healing aspects of writing. Our conscious mind may be driving the bus, but itâ€™s not always in charge.â€
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? â€œFive minutes may seem like a ridiculously short amount of time,â€ Adams notes. â€œBut when you know thatâ€™s all you have, you get busy.â€
Behavior research: Simply put, practice how youâ€™re going to react in a specific situation so when the time comes youâ€™re prepared for anything. â€œNo matter what happens, no matter what youâ€™re hit with, you feel competent and ready to handle it,â€ Adams says. â€œYou feel powerful.â€
Springboard: Write a word with one letter on each line (healing, for example), then write open sentences or thoughts that start with each letter. â€œIâ€™m always surprised by the insights that come from working with this goofy structure,â€ Adams says. â€œUnhook your brain and donâ€™t think about it so muchâ€”just let it come.â€
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After each entry, re-read what youâ€™ve written, then give yourself a sentence or two of feedback. Start with â€œIâ€™m surprised by â€” or â€œIâ€™m aware of â€”â€ then use those prompts to help you sum things up. â€œIf you just close the book and move on, that â€˜ahaâ€™ moment will fade away,â€ AdamsÂ 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. â€œWhen you only concentrate on the negative, it doesnâ€™t represent the whole picture,â€ Adams says. â€œMost 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.â€ See your journalâ€”and life in generalâ€”as a tapestry, Adams says. When the threads are woven together, it makes a rich mosaic of bright and dark.
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