Journaling Can Reduce the Impact of Trauma and Stress

JournalingIt doesn’t surprise anyone in my life when I pull out a pen and notebook. I write everything down. I love books with blank pages, beautiful paper and pens that are comfortable in my hand and are nicely balanced. I hand write. A lot.

In particular, journaling has been a part of my life ever since I could remember. I write about the good, the bad and the ugly of my life. In many ways, my life is recorded in thousands and thousands of words. I do it because it is good for me. The research says so. That’s why, in my practice, I recommend journaling to a lot of my clients.

Why?

Because writing, even about difficult and traumatic experiences, is good for your health, your emotional well-being and for improving life functioning in general. It improves mood, objective and subjective health, and the ability to function well in an otherwise very stressful world.

Here’s what the research says.

1) A 1988 study done by psychologist Dr. James W. Pennebaker and his colleagues have proved the value of deep personal disclosure that comes with journaling. The study involved 50 undergraduates who were instructed to write about either their traumatic experiences or superficial topics for four days in a row. After six weeks, the students in the trauma group reported more positive mood and fewer illness than those writing about everyday experiences. They reported fewer visits to the student health center and reported that confronting their trauma was physically and psychologically beneficial.

2) In a follow-up study, Pennebaker and his research group categorized 60 Holocaust survivors as low, midlevel or high disclosure while being interviewed. Those who disclosed at high or midlevel disclosures were significantly healthier a year later when compared to low disclosures.

3) In 1994, an outplacement firm (Drake Beam Morin) followed 63 professionals who had been laid off from their jobs over an eight month period. The experimental group was asked to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings about the layoff and about how their professional and personal lives had been affected. They were instructed to write for five consecutive days for 30 minutes at a time while researchers tracked their employment status. Those who wrote about losing their job were much more likely to find new one in the months following the study.

4) Joshua Smyth and Arthur Stone extended the research to medical patients who suffered from asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. They were instructed to write about the most stressful event of their lives or about a neutral topic. Four months later, patients with asthma showed improvements in lung function while arthritis patients showed reduction in the severity of their disease. A total of 47% of patients who disclosed stressful events show marked physical improvement.

What does this all mean?

Writing works.

Writing is easy, inexpensive and independent. It is a simple way to be resilient in the face of stress and disease. It is worth the time and effort to disclose your innermost thoughts and feelings because it is good for your health and your psychological well-being.

I encourage journaling for three main reasons.

1. Journaling reduces mental scatter and increases focus.

Difficult life events can create a scatter-brained experience like no other. Thoughts becomes overwhelming and can race out of control. You can become bombarded with everything that needs to get done, that you didn’t get done, and everything in between; leading to no rhyme or reason. Everything becomes tangled together in one big mess.

Writing it down can help to sort things out and keep you focused and grounded in processing one thing at a time and in a thorough manner.

Journaling assists in holding thoughts still so they can be changed and integrated.

Many times, I have clients complain about how frustrating it is for them to hang on to their thoughts while in the grip of crisis or emotional upheaval. During these times, thoughts can be powerful, fleeting and elusive – like hanging on to water with a tight fist. When thoughts move quickly, they are only processed on the surface – at the place of physiological experience and emotions.

Writing helps to hold thoughts still long enough to examine them on a deeper level where change becomes possible.

2. Journaling releases pent-up thoughts and emotions.

It can be tempting to hold everything in. Some do it because they feel, if they start, they may never be able to stop. Others, because it is just plain overwhelming and hard. It’s easier to avoid and not deal with difficult stuff.

But, it’s worse when you hold it all in. Those who hang on their emotions – holding them in, skimming over them, minimizing them – tend to build up a reservoir of unresolved issues. Eventually, the reservoir becomes too small, explodes and spills out in a big mess.

Writing helps to process things as they happen…as you have time. The alternative is to not address things and eventually your issues will force you to take the time. Eventually, your body will say “no” in whatever way it can to make you hear and stop.

Writing can be like a valve that releases the pressure to keep things manageable.

And, most importantly….

3. Journaling allows you to re-experience the past with today’s adult mind.

When a trauma happened in your childhood, it gets coded at that age. This is why  sometimes, when someone gets triggered, they tend to become that age again. For example, if you were abused as a six year old, as an adult, when this memory gets triggered, you become that six year old – behaving, thinking and feeling the emotions of your six year old self. As a consequence, you use the strategies that worked for you as a child, but which are unhelpful in your adult life because you have other options available to you as a response.

In essence, you have a child driving the bus. And, they can’t even see out over the steering wheel.

The goal of trauma work and therapy is to help you process your trauma so it “grows” up from childhood to adult ways of thinking and behaving in relation to the trauma. Journaling, like therapy, helps you process the disturbing event to its logical, healthy and most helpful resolution.

The 3 most popular objections to journaling.

“I don’t have enough time.”

My short answer to this: you don’t have the time not to. Like I said earlier, if you don’t make the time, your body and your emotions will do something drastic to force you to make the time.

Journaling does not require a lot of time and you don’t have to do it every day. You do, however, need to have the courage to do it consistently.

Everything worth doing takes time and effort.

“I’m not a writer.”

You don’t have to be a writer. And, you don’t have to write in full paragraphs or even in complete sentences. Write in bullet form. Draw with words and quotes. Just get your feelings down and process your experience. There is no word or page quota. Do enough to keep your life moving forward.

Here are some questions to get you started:

  • What happened?
  • How did you feel when it was happening? After? Now?
  • How do you wish it had been different?
  • In what ways did you manage the situation well?
  • What did you learn about yourself as you look back on your experience?
  • How can these new learnings move your life forward?
  • Where do you want to go from here?
  • What are your hopes for yourself and your life moving forward?
  • If the crisis/trauma could speak, what would it want for your life?
  • Is what the trauma wants for you the same as what you want for you…your life?
  • As an adult, how can you see or think about your trauma in a different way?

“I’m afraid I won’t be able to stop.”

Trauma and crisis can be overwhelming sometimes. So overwhelming it can derail you if you spend too much time thinking and writing about it. This is when you may need some additional support to get past the initial overwhelm. Therapy can be helpful in these situations to move you from overwhelm to managing while you process. Therapy can be a place where you learn self-soothing and coping skills you can apply to all areas of your life. There is also great power in having someone else non-judgmentally bear witness to your story, help you give language to your experience (naming things can be powerful) and guiding you through the process of overcoming your past.

So grab a pen (pencil, marker, crayon…), set the timer and choose an event.

Calm out of chaos.

It is (as Martha would say) a very good thing.

Cited Research

Pennebaker, J.W. (1997). Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotion. New York: Guilford Press.

Pennebaker, J. W., Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., & Glaser, R. (1988). Disclosure of traumas and immune function: Health implications for psychotherapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 56, pp. 239-245.

Smyth, J. M., Stone, A. A., Hurewitz, A., & Kaell, A. (1999). Effects of writing about stressful experiences on symptom reduction in patients with asthma or rheumatoid arthritis. Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 281, pp. 1304-9.

Spera, S. P., Buhrfeind, E. D. & J.W. Pennebaker, (1994). Expressive writing and coping with job loss. Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 37, pp. 722-733.

Journaling not quite helping you to move in the direction you would like? Therapy (EMDR therapy in particular) can get you moving faster and with the support you need. Ready to have your six year old ride in the back where they belong? Give me a call at 610-551-8203 for a free 30 minute phone or in-office consult to see how we can make that happen.