The translating of emotion into words is both illuminating and healing. It allows us to label what we’re feeling so that we can use our logical thinking to process and understand it. It allows us to witness the contents of our mind and heart as they pour out onto the paper. It helps the right and left brain to strengthen their connectivity so that right and left brain work together more evenly and efficiently
“Your journal is your sacred space where you can meet yourself again and again.”
The Body Benefits
Journaling elevates the immune system and calms the autonomic system, smoothing out the heartbeat, breathing and perspiration. In his book, Opening Up, James Pennebaker M.D., professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, talks about how he uses journaling to help people understand and work with the contents of their inner worlds. Pennebaker paints the picture of journaling as a very active, rather than passive, pursuit in which the body as well as the mind and emotions benefit. As we freely write our thoughts and feelings on paper, the associative process of our mind goes to work, and feelings and imageries emerge, struggle to find expression and so find their way from emotional muteness to emotional literacy. Journaling allows emotions that may have been numbed out, repressed or split out of consciousness, held wordlessly within our limbic world, to be felt and translated by the thinking brain into meaningful and descriptive language, so that we can better understand the contents of our inner world. What we may have been carrying in silence finds a voice, what we may have been unable to see, takes a shape. The fog begins to clear and we can better see who we are and why we do the things we do.
Pennebaker asked participants in his study, to write about traumatic events of their lives for 15-30 minutes on four consecutive days. Writing continuously about a problem, he feels, allows participants to thoroughly examine how it has affected them. “People have to stick with it,” said one participant. “I get to the first page and it’s pure anger or frustration.” Pennebaker feels that people “need to get beyond the emotion and discover a better understanding. They need to find the ending of the process.” Developing a deeper understanding of the event and the emotions it generates, he feels, helps the brain digest the information. When you analyze a traumatic event your brain turns it into a story, the prefrontal cortex can make sense of limbic material that may be held in the body or thrown out of consciousness and make conscious sense of it. “Storytelling simplifies a complex experience.”
Journaling Stressful Feelings Strengthens Immunity
In further studies conducted by James W. Pennebaker, and Joshua M. Smyth, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at North Dakota State University, the researchers found that people who write about their deepest thoughts and feelings surrounding upsetting events have stronger immunity and visit their doctors half as often as those who write only about trivial events. And more recent research conducted by Joshua M. Smyth at the State University of New York at Stoneybrook, revealed that writing about a stressful experience actually reduces physical symptoms for patients with chronic illnesses. The research team monitored 112 patients with arthritis or asthma. Two groups were asked to write in their journals for 20 minutes three days in a row. One group was asked to write about either an emotionally stressful incident, the other group was asked to write about their plans for the day. The group who expressed their emotions on paper, showed a 50% improvement in their disease after four months. The group who wrote only about neutral topics showed only a 25% relief of symptoms.
Journaling about the anxieties, fears and feelings that surgery brought up actually doubled patients’ symptom relief. The study’s medical advisor, Dr. Pamela M. Peeke, MD observes, “more importantly, 22% of the people who only wrote about their daily plans worsened substantially over the four-month period, while only 4% of those who wrote about their stressful events did so.” Dr. Peeke reflected that “one of the least studied techniques so commonly taught in spas is journaling. Now, there is intriguing evidence that journaling has a direct impact upon the status of chronic disease.”
Letting it Flow: How to Journal
The basic method is to simply put pen to paper and let your thoughts and feelings pour out freely. Give the editor who lives in your mind a vacation, and let go of worrying about saying things in a coherent or readable way. Simply put pen to paper and trust the process. This is your private space for a full and unedited expression of self; no one need see what you write other than you, this is for your eyes alone unless you choose to share it.
The more completely we can abandon our internal governors and trust the process of writing, the more penetrating our associations and glimpses into our inner world will be. Through journaling, we integrate thought and feeling, we translate emotions into words so that they can be momentarily held out in the light of day and given space to breathe. We express what may have been nebulous or vague and bring it into some form of clarity. We gain insight and perspective, we flush out concealed or veiled material and bring it out onto the page where we can see and reflect on it, creating new meaning to replace the old. We see an old problem in a new light. What may, for example, have bewildered us in childhood, gains shape and clarity as we lay it out in front of our own, more mature eyes. We begin a dialogue between our adult selves and our child selves. Our adult self can listen and “hold” the powerful feelings that our child or adolescent self may be experiencing unnecessary conflict, misunderstanding and not serve to communicate effectively. Then the adult can talk to the world on behalf of the child, rather than the child or adolescent blurting out emotion in a raw form that may cause communication problems. Author Vladimir Nabakov expresses beautifully the relieving process of writing, “the pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there in invisible ink, clamoring to become visible.”
Tian Dayton, MA, PhD, TEP, is the Director of the New York Psychodrama Training Institute and the Program Development for Breathe Life Healing Centers and executive editor of the Journal of Psychodrama, Sociometry and Group Psychotherapy. She serves on the board of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics and is the author of 15 books. Dr. Dayton is the creator of the Internet's first interactive self-help website, www.emotionexplorer.com. Learn more at www.tiandayton.com.