What if I told you that there was a free, secret pill that was scientifically proven to lower doctor visits, improve your immune system, reduce your blood pressure, improve your mood, increase your feeling of well-being, and reduce depression? (1) That it has no negative side effects, and has been proven to reduce absenteeism from work, lead to quicker re-employment after job loss, improve GPAs in students and improve sports performance? You’d probably take it, right?
Well, it exists, and this time it’s not meditation—it’s journaling. If you don’t already have a regular writing practice, I highly recommend getting out that pen and paper and getting started. It doesn’t require any practice. If you can read and write, you can journal, and you’ll start to benefit right away.
What to Write
These positive health benefits are only proven by writing about traumatic, stressful, and emotional events. Simply keeping a record of what happens in your day won’t help; in many studies control groups who wrote about neutral events did not have nearly the same increases in health. But what’s amazing to me is that these emotional events don’t even have to happen in reality—imaginary scenarios have been shown to have the same positive health outcomes. (1)
While there aren’t any other hard and fast rules, you’ll get the most benefit if you write for yourself, not worrying about what others might think. Take off your filters and forget about punctuation and grammar. Set a timer and write continuously, or don’t stop writing until you’ve fully explored many angles of your emotions. You can pick a theme for the day or the week—such as one traumatic event, a particularly charged relationship (partner, parents, co-worker), or your childhood.
Of course you can also write about your positive emotions as well. You can write gratitude, and letters of appreciation to those you love (whether or not you ever send them). Do whatever it takes for you to get in a habit of writing about the seemingly “negative” emotions—even if that means giving yourself a specific time not to.
The Higher Reaches of Development
Some call it writing therapy, because the journal almost acts as our own personal therapist. In one empirical study of leaders, nearly half of the most highly developed leaders working on large-scale sustainability issues in the world explicitly mentioned journaling as one of their self-development practices. (3) Reflective journaling is often cited as a tool to foster development in other non-academic contexts as well. The practice builds in us a capacity to take our own subjective experiences and make them objects of our awareness, opening us to the possibility of knowing ourselves better than we could otherwise.
In journaling about our deepest emotions, we see parts of ourselves we’re normally blind to. It’s a perspective-taking exercise that we can build into a habitual way of operating in the world. This allows us to become aware of and accept these so-called negative emotions on the spot, and find the healthiest ways to express them.
(1) Baikie, Karen A. and Wilhelm, Kay. “Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing.” Advances in Psychiatric Treatment 11 (2005): 338-346.
(2) Brown, B. C. (2011). Conscious leadership for sustainability: How leaders with a late-stage action logic design and engage in sustainability initiatives. Doctoral dissertation, Fielding Graduate University. (2011): 175, 237 http://integralthinkers.com/wp-content/uploads/Brown_2011_Conscious-leadership-for-sustainability_Full-dissertation_v491.pdf
(3) Wright, Laura (2007). Reflective journaling: A guide to personal and spiritual growth. Albuquerque, N.M.: Bristlecone Pub.
(4) Herring, Laraine (2010). The writing warrior: Discovering the courage to free your true voice. Boston: Shambhala.
More, including links to more of the research: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Writing_therapy