What is one thing that Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Marie Curie, Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, Andy Warhol, Lewis Carrol, Leonardo Da Vinci, Charles Darwin, Marcus Aurelius, Ernest Hemingway, and Maya Angelou have in common? They were all serious and habitual journalers.
On top of the Covid-19 pandemic health scare, many are also facing the threat of layoffs and salary cuts. This has ratchetted up the fear, anxiety, and stress for many. This blog, makes a case for journaling to relieve stress and anxiety and to jumpstart creativity and inspiration. While there are many types of journaling, this post focuses on therapeutic journaling or expressive writing.
What is Journaling or Expressive writing?
According to Dr. James Pennebaker, one of the pioneering voices in this field, “Since the mid-1980s an increasing number of studies have focused on the value of expressive writing as a way to bring about healing. The evidence is mounting that the act of writing about traumatic experience for as little as fifteen or twenty minutes a day for three or four days can produce measurable changes in physical and mental health. Emotional writing can also affect people's sleep habits, work efficiency, and how they connect with others."
There is an intriguing research conducted by Dr. James Pennebaker at a high-tech company that laid off a few of its senior engineers. Pennebaker and his team asked one group of engineers to write about being laid off and delve into all their negative feelings as well as the anxiety for their finances and future. The other control group wrote about time management. Eight months after writing, fifty-two percent of the emotional writing group had new jobs compared with only twenty percent of the time management participants. According to Pennebaker it was the writing that helped transform these men from ruminating about what happened to them to being more open and accepting adults.
Interested? Here are some tips to get you started:
- Ensure that your journal is private and read only by you.
- It can be a free-flow format written by hand (preferably) rather than typed. The best way to start journaling is to let yourself go and really talk to yourself using the journal. It is like self-talk with the difference that you’re writing it down. There is no prescribed format. You write about what’s bothering you, what emotions is it evoking in you, what fears and anxieties do you feel, and then once you get all this down on paper, you are free to brainstorm for ideas. I’ve shared a simpler approach as suggested by research but do read the book Expressive Writing: Words that Heal by James Pennebaker for some more methods if this one doesn’t suit your context.
- You can write for 20 minutes every day for 4 days, especially when faced with stress and anxiety. You can try to write at the same time and in the same place if possible. The idea to make journaling as a ritual. Once the anxiety reduces, write whenever you feel like it.
- What to write about: things that you’re thinking or worrying about, something you’re dreaming about, something affecting your life in an unhealthy way, or something you’ve been avoiding for days, weeks, or years. According to Maud Purcell, “writing accesses the left hemisphere of the brain, which is analytical and rational. While your left brain is occupied, your right brain is free to do what it does best, i.e. create, intuit and feel. In this way, writing removes mental blocks and allows us to use more of our brainpower to better understand ourselves and the world around us.”
Here’s a video of Dr. James Pennebaker sharing this process.
Compelling benefits of Expressive writing:4
- Improves relationships – Research shows that people who write about traumatic experiences talk more with other people, laugh more easily and often, and use more positive emotion words in the weeks afterwards. Writing seemed to make people more socially comfortable — better listeners, talkers, indeed better friends and partners
- Decreases stress & boosts immune system – When people write or talk about traumas, they often show immediate signs of reduced stress: lower muscle tension in their face, and drops in hand skin conductance (often used in lie detection to measure the stress of deception) and lower blood pressure and heart rates. The body’s immune system can function more or less effectively, depending on the person’s stress level. As expressive writing enhances emotion regulation, it can play a key role in brain and immune physiology.
- Improves mood, health and general well-being - people who engage in expressive writing report feeling happier and less negative than they felt before writing. Other studies found improvement in overall well-being and improved cognitive functioning.
Give it a try. Start journaling now, for the next 4 days setting aside 20 minutes each day, and observe how it works for you!
Let’s sum up with this couplet from Macbeth which the Bard expresses so poignantly:
“Give sorrow words;
the grief that does not speak;
whispers the o’er-fraught heart
and bids it break.”
Book title – “Expressive Writing: Words That Heal” by James W. Pennebaker