Better Health and Other Benefits of Keeping a Journal

by Ruth Folit

James W. Pennebaker, PhD has done a lot of research about writing and the effect it has on the health of writers. He conducted experiments that assigned college students who had volunteered to be a part of the study to write for 15 minutes on four consecutive days. Each student was randomly assigned to only write about (1) something superficial, (2) the facts of a traumatic event, or (3) his/her emotions related to a traumatic event. Pennebaker then tracked the number of visits each group made to the university health clinic during the four months after the four days of writing. Those in group # 3 went to the health clinic HALF as often as the students who just wrote about superficialities or just the fact of the traumatic events. Those who expressed their emotions stayed noticeably healthier than the other two groups for up to four months after the writing!

Wanting to create a follow-up study that would either further support or refute this first study, Pennebaker’s next study had volunteer college students divided into the same three groups, as above. This time, he measured the immune function of the writers. He took blood samples of the writers before they started the writing days, after the last day of writing, and again six weeks after writing. The results backed up the first study: People who wrote about their deepest thoughts and feeling surrounding traumatic events they had experienced showed stronger immune function compared with those who wrote about more superficial topics. Pennebaker and other researchers have shown again and again that writing about emotional upheaval improves physical health. It doesn’t have to be about the most traumatic event in your life, but among other things, focus on the important issues that are current in your life.

Pennebaker also sees other benefits of writing. Actively writing about a topic — whether it’s academic and fact-based or emotional and subjective–helps the writer organize, re-organize, and assimilate the material. So, if you are working your way through some complex material and want a better handle on it, try writing about it, reviewing it, re-organizing it, digesting it and, ultimately, more deeply understanding it.

Pennebaker also suggests writing to clear the mind. Writing about what’s in the forefront of your mind-the small stuff that you are worrying or thinking about that is a distraction to the real work ahead -seems to clear the way to focus on the real task at hand. Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way, promotes a technique called “the morning pages” that capitalizes on writing for this purpose. She encourages you to write every morning continuously for about 20-30 minutes about anything and everything, with the result that you have expressed distracting and perhaps negative feelings, attitudes, and worries that otherwise would interfere with your creative energy. You can start the day with a clean, fresh mind.

Pennebaker also claims that writing fosters problem solving. Writing helps in understanding complex problems, forces the writer to focus on the subject longer than just merely thinking about it would, and compels the writer to spend more time thinking about details, as writing is a slower process than just thinking. Have a knotty problem that you trying to untangle? Write about it!