The Healing Powers of Keeping a Journal, and 3 Ways to Stick With It
Writing about your day may power up your health. Follow these tips to get started, or stick with it..
Get an injection, down those pills, and follow your MDâs 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 benefitsâamong 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.
âJournal 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). âIt lets us say whatâs on our minds and helps us getâand stayâhealthy through listening to our inner desires and needs.â
Never been the journaling type? To get started, follow these tips.
Choose your moments
âDonât plan to write every day,â Adams cautions. "When thereâs that expectation, the first day that's missed, all of the air is let out of the balloon. Itâs like a New Yearâs 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 itâs helpful to have a strategy when first getting started to develop consistencyâfor example, check in with yourself three times a week. The length of time isnât 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
âBefore 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) writingâbasically jotting whatever pops into your head. But when you sit down with a blank piece of paper and no plan or structure, thereâs a likelihood that youâll 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 thatâs the beauty of the exercise: âThere 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. âWhatâs more, it doesnât take long to realize that youâre telling yourself surprising and revealing thingsâand that element of surprise is one of the most healing aspects of writing. Our conscious mind may be driving the bus, but itâs 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? âFive minutes may seem like a ridiculously short amount of time,â Adams notes. âBut when you know thatâs all you have, you get busy.â
Behavior research: Simply put, practice how youâre going to react in a specific situation so when the time comes youâre prepared for anything. âNo matter what happens, no matter what youâre hit with, you feel competent and ready to handle it,â Adams says. âYou 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. âIâm always surprised by the insights that come from working with this goofy structure,â Adams says. âUnhook your brain and donât think about it so muchâjust let it come.â
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After each entry, re-read what youâve written, then give yourself a sentence or two of feedback. Start with âIâm surprised by â or âIâm aware of ââ then use those prompts to help you sum things up. âIf you just close the book and move on, that âahaâ 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. âWhen you only concentrate on the negative, it doesnât represent the whole picture,â Adams says. âMost 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 journalâand life in generalâas a tapestry, Adams says. When the threads are woven together, it makes a rich mosaic of bright and dark.
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