There’s nothing like putting pen to paper to instill you with a sense of optimism, anticipation and excitement about your goals or aspirations. The act of writing something down always makes it more real, more concrete than merely thinking it — which is why we’re always extolling the virtues of training journals and food diaries!
Benefits of diary writing
Professor James Pennebaker, from the University of Texas in Austin, has carried out numerous experiments on the health benefits of writing expressively (nope, we’re not talking about a chronological record of events) and has shown that regular writing can bolster the immune system, help you recover from traumatic events more successfully and ease stress and depression. In his research, people who had survived traumatic events who wrote about their experiences for 20 minutes per day, three to four times a week, visited the doctor half as much as those who didn’t write. The journal writers demonstrated a more vigorous antibody response to bacteria and viruses and produced less cortisol, a stress hormone.
In another study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis and asthma who wrote about life events they’d found highly stressful experienced a significant reduction in symptoms of their diseases. And it’s not all just about ‘feeling better’. Students who were asked to write about emotional topics in their journals showed improved grades in one research project, while absentee rates went down in a group of university staff members after they wrote about their emotions and experiences. Experts believe this may be because sitting down and writing about the thoughts and emotions cramming your head force you to reflect on them and put them in some kind of order, so that you experience ‘mastery’ of the situation.
Don’t dwell on the past
But not all experts recommend dwelling on traumatic events. In fact, research at Glasgow Caledonian University found that people who were regular journal-keepers suffered more headaches, digestive problems and sleeplessness than non-writers — particularly those who consistently churned over their problems rather than opting for a single, cathartic outpouring. However, there was no way of telling whether the journal keepers simply had more traumas to cope with in the first place. And according to further research by James Pennebaker, suppression of emotions, particularly negative ones, reduces the immune system response, while expressing them enhances it.
Your own diary
The key to successful journal writing is to use it for your own needs. If you want to write about past hurts, disappointments or traumas then do so. If you’d rather write about the here and now, day-to-day dilemmas and frustrations — or your aspirations for the year ahead — do that. The beauty of a diary is that it is for you and you alone.
Which brings us to the question, should you read your own diary? Some experts believe that reading through what you’ve written is useful, helping you to spot repetitive patterns of thought or behavior, and helping you make sense of situations and put them in perspective. But others feel that merely committing the words to paper is what is important — not reflecting on them afterwards. As for me, an avid journal writer for more than 15 years, there are still some entries I have never once read, and perhaps never will. But for the most part, I find reading what I’ve written fascinating, life-affirming and, quite often, entertaining. I’ve seen, done, felt and experienced all that — and I’m still sane! Happy writing.
Diary tips from the top
James Pennebaker has written a book on the benefits of journal writing: Opening Up — the healing power of expressing emotions.
Here are his first-timer diary keeper’s tips:
Find a time and place to write where you won't be disturbed. Ideally, pick a time at the end of your work day or before you go to bed.
Promise yourself that you will write for a minimum of 15 minutes a day at least three or four consecutive days.
Once you begin writing, write continuously. Don't worry about spelling or grammar.
Don’t censor what you write. Write just for yourself.
If you are faced with ‘blank page syndrome’ and don’t know where to start, try writing about:
Something that you are thinking or worrying about too much
Something that you have dreamed recently
Something that you have been avoiding
The best thing that happened today