Studies have shown that you can write yourself a better life
By Wendy Haaf
Would you like to fall asleep more quickly at night? Reduce your stress? Ease pain and fatigue? Or simply feel more optimistic and satisfied with your life? Then you might want to sit down and put pen to paper for a few minutes each day: growing evidence suggests that the simple act of writing offers a host of benefits—psychological and even physical. Here’s a rundown of those that have been associated with two types of keeping a journal.
Chris Carruthers of Calgary had been ill with chronic fatigue syndrome for some time when, inspired by a book called The Artist’s Way, she began journaling regularly.
“I had no energy, but I could sit at a computer, so I thought, That’s something I can do,” she recalls. Before long, she noticed, “I was feeling so much better and I didn’t have as much fatigue.” Intrigued, Carruthers, who now practises as a health coach, began delving into the scientific literature on expressive writing. (This type of journaling involves writing about emotional, stressful, or traumatic experiences, typically for 20 minutes each day.)
What Carruthers found suggested that the practice had a number of benefits, from finding a job more quickly following a layoff to speeding the healing of wounds, improving certain measurements of immune function, and easing the symptoms of chronic health conditions.
For example, in one study of 107 patients with asthma or rheumatoid arthritis, participants were asked to write for three consecutive days about one of two subjects: their most traumatic experience or their day-to-day activities. Four months later, those who’d recorded their feelings about a stressful event saw an improvement in objective measurements of disease severity, while participants in the neutral writing group experienced no change.
These findings were echoed in a study Carruthers conducted as part of her Ph.D., in which 52 people with chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia, back pain, headaches, and depression were instructed to write for 20 minutes a day for a minimum of four days. “They could write how they felt about their life or their illness or their symptoms,” Carruthers says. Using a variety of tools, participants’ moods, symptoms, sleep quality, and energy levels were measured on enrolment in the study, again at one week, and finally at 12 weeks. At the three-month mark, physical symptoms had waned an average of 56 per cent, while anxiety and depression had improved by 24 per cent.
But how does it work? There are a number of different possibilities. “If we have something distressing in our life and we try to suppress it, that causes contraction of the muscle tissue and what we call autonomic system suppression—a lack of relaxation,” Carruthers explains. “But as soon as we disclose onto paper, we feel better physically. So that’s one way it works—by decreasing inhibition of our emotions.”
Writing also enables us to reflect upon and reorganize our thoughts and emotions.
“As we tell our story, we organize it better in our minds,” Carruthers says, “and it actually takes up less room in our working memory, which is where insight comes from.”
According to Kieran O’Connor, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychiatry at the University of Montreal, part of the power of journaling is that it allows us to take a step back and observe our feelings and behaviour at a slight remove. In journaling, “you gain distance from your experience,” he says, which can help you understand and find meaning in it. It may also decrease the intensity of negative emotions, aid in problem-solving, and pave the way to repairing relationships by enabling you to see another person’s point of view. (A preliminary study found that in the case of trauma from a breakup or divorce, a specific type of emotional journaling called narrative writing—relating the arc of events as a story with a beginning, middle, and end—actually helps lower heart rate and blood pressure and improve a measure of heart health known as heart rate variability, while traditional expressive writing had no such effect.)
Journaling can serve as a kind of rehearsal for potentially stressful experiences or difficult conversations. “Another way expressive writing can help people is through desensitization and habituation,” Carruthers says.
For example, in studies, when people who fear undergoing a dental procedure or having a CT scan express on paper beforehand how they might feel during the experience, “they actually do better when they get into the physical situation,” Carruthers says. Similarly, if you’re asking for a raise or opening a discussion about a touchy subject with your partner, “it’s really beneficial to write down the key things you want to say and the triggers that might make you want to close down beforehand,” she says. “Then when you have that difficult communication, it usually goes better.”
For people who are living with the ebb and flow of symptoms from a chronic condition such as migraine or depression, keeping a journal can help track the severity of those symptoms over time. “You can get a more objective view of your illness,” says O’Connor, who is also the director of the OCD Spectrum Study Centre at the University Institute of Mental Health at Montreal. “Depressed people tend to recall negative experiences,” he explains. “Writing things down allows them to look back and see that not every day has been negative.” Re-reading a journal can also provide a pick-me-up for those who aren’t clinically depressed but are feeling down. “Sometimes it can correct your mood,” O’Connor says.
Patterns can emerge in a written record, as well, which can pinpoint factors that exacerbate symptoms. “A lot of psychological problems such as panic seem to come out of the blue,” O’Connor explains, “but a journal can contextualize what was happening before an attack.” Or in a condition such as Tourette’s syndrome, documenting the intensity of tics and the feelings that preceded or accompanied an episode, may ultimately lead to an ability to decrease their frequency or intensity. “It gives the person a feeling of control, of mastery over his or her own experience,” O’Connor says.
Putting words on the page before bed may also lighten our mental load, thereby setting the stage for sleep to arrive with greater speed.
“In my practice, when I teach someone with insomnia about sleep health, in addition to providing them with breathing and relaxation techniques, I ask them to do a little bit of writing before they go to bed,” Carruthers says. Even a simple to-do list seems to help. In a recent study involving 57 university students, participants who’d been instructed to jot down what they needed to accomplish over the next few days before retiring fell asleep more quickly than those who’d been told to simply record what they’d done in the past day or two.
Photo: iStock/Tom Merton.