Journaling to Health
by Katherine Khalife

Friday, June 26, 1959

This is my very own diary, and I think it will be my new best friend. I'm going to call it Sue. I don't really know what I should write about, but here goes...

Dear Sue,
Today I went to visit my Aunt Helen and my cousin Iva Jane. Iva's baby "Johnny" is the cutest thing. I want to have a baby when I grow up, but my baby will be a girl. I still want to be a famous singer too, though. Everybody thinks I'm kidding about that, but it's my secret ambition. When I got home I cleaned my room and then I ate a chicken leg.

Your Faithful Friend,

I never did become a mother or a famous singer, but that 9-year-old's first entry in the red vinyl book with the pony-tailed teenager embossed on the cover did prove prophetic about one thing: Forty-one years later my journal is still my best friend.

I stopped calling my journal Sue when I was 11, the same time I traded that first volume in for a more grown-up model made of turquoise Leatherette. By the time I skidded into full-blown adolescence I preferred fabric-covered journals, and chicken legs hardly rated mention anymore. Instead, I poured my heart out about painful family secrets and raged at the sinking realization that I was never going to be a famous singer after all. But, without even realizing it, I had somehow made the transition into the type of journal writing that experts now say can improve health.

In the decades since, I've filled 10 more volumes. Some of the pages hold lessons learned tenderly. Others still have scuff marks. Sometimes they're my trampoline, propelling me to a higher place. Sometimes they're my emotional emergency room. Always, they're a lap to curl up in when I need comfort and an inner road map when I need direction. And during dark nights of the soul, those college-ruled pages become what Louise A. DeSalvo, Ph.D., author of Writing as a Way of Healing (Harper San Francisco), calls "a very sturdy ladder out of the pit to reach freedom and safety."

Ira Progoff, Ph.D., a New York Jungian psychologist who died in 1998, became one of the first to recognize the therapeutic power of journaling when he noticed that his clients who kept journals recovered faster. Believing that "people become sensitive to the elusive threads of their inner lives when they have a definite way of working with them," Progoff developed a number of journaling techniques that he began teaching in workshops in the 1960s and '70s.

By the mid-1980s, James Pennebaker, Ph.D., a research psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, was conducting studies and gathering scientific data on the physical benefits of journal writing. Summarized and referenced in his 1997 book Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotion (Guilford Press), numerous studies found that people who write about their traumatic experiences and difficult emotions not only feel better, but also have stronger immune function and fewer doctor visits than those who only write about daily activities.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (April 1999, vol. 281, no. 14) was the first one to examine whether writing about stressful events has any effect on the chronically ill. Like the earlier studies on healthy people, this one also produced compelling results. Researchers at the State University of New York at Stony Brook asked 112 patients with asthma or rheumatoid arthritis to write 20 minutes a day for three days. Some were told to write about the most stressful event of their lives; others were asked to write about their plans for the day.

When they were tested four months later, asthma patients in the stressful event group showed a 19 percent improvement in lung function, and rheumatoid arthritis sufferers had a 28 percent improvement in overall symptoms. There was no change in those who had only written about daily plans. David Spiegel, M.D., of the Stanford University School of Medicine, comments that "in this and a growing number of other studies, it is not simply mind over matter, but it is clear that mind matters."

Sometimes just quieting the mind can be a blessed relief. During stressful times, for example, when anxiety is keeping me awake at night, emptying my worries onto paper calms me down and lets me get a good night's sleep. Denver psychotherapist Kathleen Adams, founder/director of the Center for Journal Therapy and author of Journal to the Self (Warner Books) and The Way of the Journal (Sidran Press), calls this phenomenon containment. "Use your journal book literally as a container," she advises. "Know that when you write, you are moving thoughts, feelings and energy out of your mind and body and into a neutral, receptive place where they will be stored safely for you."

And just as containment helps relieve outer-world overwhelm, Adams says it's also a vital tool to prevent journaling itself from becoming emotionally overwhelming. When dealing with a very difficult issue, for example, she suggests containing it by putting a time or page limit on that session's writing. Another tool Adams recommends is pacing. "Swim like a dolphin," she counsels. "Dive deep and surface. Go into the heart of your issue, then come up for air. Stretch, breathe, get a drink of water. Then dive back into your writing."

In 1959, when I took that deep breath, said "here goes!" and flung myself into the journal pool, I had no idea where that dive would eventually take me. But I think I sensed even then that, wherever I ended up, it would be a healing journey. For me, journal writing has evolved over the years into a form of meditation, prayer, therapy and stress relief rolled into one. It gives structure to my dreams, cleans the emotional sludge from my fins and records my thank-you letters to the universe. Best of all, it keeps me gliding expectantly toward the next wave.

If this is your year to take the plunge and you're still wondering how best to get started, why not take Kathleen Adams' advice? "Begin. Just begin."

Katherine Khalife is a freelance writer living in
Lancaster, Pennsylvania.