02/27/2014 05:51 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Journaling for Your Health


Keeping a journal is like carrying on a conversation with yourself -- or with your higher self, if you prefer. As such, it is a commitment to spiritual practice. It is also a meditative process, and like all meditative exercises it requires some discipline. But rather than thinking of this as the discipline to get up and run five miles every morning, try to think of it more as the discipline of working on your tennis game, or gardening, or yoga. It can be an enjoyable practice that yields rewards, rather than a death march. True, you may not feel like journaling every day, but as with meditation or yoga, you'll usually feel better afterward. Most of the time, I hope, you'll feel better during the process, too -- and not only mentally.

We've pretty much accepted the idea that keeping a journal can be good for your spiritual development, and probably your sanity as well. But recent research is showing that journaling can improve your physical health to boot. Psychologist and researcher James Pennebaker of the University of Texas at Austin contends that writing about stressful events not only helps you come to terms with them, but also strengthens certain immune cells. Other research indicates that journaling can decrease the symptoms of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis, may help to reduce stress, lower blood pressure and spur creative thinking. The conventional medical world acknowledges that stress is responsible for as much as 80 percent of all illness, so it follows that any practice that regularly reduces stress can only help your health.

But exactly how does writing in a journal create physiological changes in us? On the most basic level it allows us to gain perspective on a situation. Just as a novelist can incorporate subtle, abstract ideas into concrete stories about people and places, keeping a journal allows us to review complex thoughts and feelings and make connections between them. When you write in your journal, you're usually speaking from the first-person viewpoint. But when you go back and reread your journal -- the next day, next week or next month -- it feels like you're reading what someone else has written, almost as if it were in third person. That can provide enough emotional distance to allow you to view your thoughts and actions objectively. In archetypal terms, we would say that you're able to view events from the symbolic level, not taking them so personally. This helps avoid absorbing the stress that comes with feeling either attacked by others or a victim of random events.

Because most writing involves following the rules of grammar and syntax, not to mention interpreting an abstract symbolic alphabet, it engages the logical strengths of the left lobe of the brain on a high level. Meanwhile it frees up the intuitive and spatially perceptive powers of the right lobe, generating new thoughts and ideas. By pulling those creative thoughts out of the ether and grounding them in your journal -- and whether that's a leather-bound edition or spiral notebook, your home computer or mobile device makes no difference -- you are making them real. You're also generating a more integrated brain function, which helps in solving problems ranging from everyday decision-making to major life choices. This, too, can only help to relieve stress.

And when you open yourself to including material from a dream journal, you are enriching the process of integration, allowing your conscious mind to carry on a dialog with your unconscious as expressed in dreams that you record. When Francis Bacon wrote that "Knowledge is power," he might have been talking about the kind of physical and spiritual energy that flows into you by recording your deepest thoughts and emotions.

Among other things, though, journaling teaches us to work our thoughts through to completion, and in a sense helps us think on our feet. When you examine an emotional issue from all sides while journaling, it creates mental and emotional flexibility, and a sense of familiarity with the subject. Over a period of time, this process can help you feel more control over a situation, or at least more sympathy for yourself. Whether you think of that as a spiritual process or a form of physical and mental healing makes no difference. As the great mystics and teachers understood, they are one and the same.

There is no right or wrong way to journal. But you should find a way to keep your journal private, even from your spouse or partner. If that means a locked drawer or a password-protected file, don't hesitate. If you feel like someone is looking over your shoulder, you won't be able to express your deepest desires and fears.

Dream Journal:
If possible, you might want to keep a dream journal in addition to your daily journal, just for the convenience of having all your dreams in one place. Leave it next to the bed with a pen and flashlight (or a flashlight pen), so it's always ready when you wake up with an astonishing dream. Date each dream and try to give it a title that describes the theme or action in three or four words. That way you can follow the progressions of your dreams more easily.

Relationship Journal:
You can use a separate journal to track an important relationship. It might be a romantic union, but not necessarily. It could also be a business relationship, or the reestablishment of a relationship with a parent, child, distant relative, ex or old friend. As you pursue the relationship, try to see it in symbolic or archetypal terms. This lets you step back from contentious, passionate, painful or potentially destructive moments and see things dispassionately before acting out of a purely emotional state.

What to do When You're Feeling Stuck:
When you have trouble getting started on a given day or over a period of time, try one of these methods as a way of priming the pump. They are not ends in themselves, but simple mechanisms to spark your memory and imagination to journal down to a deeper level:

1. Make Lists:
These can be lists of your favorite recipes, art exhibitions or concerts you'd like to attend, acquaintances that you haven't heard from recently, or all the movies you're seen or books you've read in the past year. List places you'd like to go or goals for the future. You could list the most significant people in your life at the moment, or your main inspirations.

2. Write Unsent Letters:
I know, it's an old therapeutic technique, but it does help to write your true feelings -- and then not send the letter -- to people you wouldn't feel safe actually writing to. But you can use the same technique to write to people you might enjoy talking to for any reason, including fictional characters from novels or films.

3. Address a Nagging Fear:
The more afraid we are of a particular subject or event in life, the greater chance that we are getting out of our comfort zone and connecting with potential change and even fulfillment. Pick a fear that you have and write it down in its simplest form. Then write down when and how you're going to confront it. Let's say you need to talk to your boss about a raise you were promised, or some situation in the workplace. Or maybe you have a fear of heights and have avoided flying for years; or you have been putting off dealing with credit card debt. Journal about the issue itself, but also about a plan for facing up to it.

The idea behind all these techniques is the same: To get comfortable with journaling and let it be a comfort to you as well.