Dr James Pennebaker is an American social psychologist whose research I found particularly useful in putting together The Self-Esteem Journal. His research showed that by using a journal for only fifteen minutes each day over four days, volunteers’ general wellbeing improved in the longer term. They had fewer visits to the GP, for example, and physical wounds healed quicker. I still find this remarkable, but it also rings true from my own experience of working with clients in counselling.
So, why does writing seem to help? Pennebaker said the writing had to be personally reflective – writing about the weather doesn’t work! By labeling and constructing a story about our experiences, we clarify and simplify it. It’s not what we say, but how we say it that is important. When exploring in this way, we tend to use ‘because’ as we’re trying to explain and give meaning to an event. Over four days writing about the same event, Pennebaker noticed that volunteers tended to change the words they used; they shifted from focusing on the self, to others, for example. Writing leads to changing in thinking as well as change in the use of words.
He found the best results occurred when people started out feeling that a situation was ‘chaotic’ and through writing they became aware of the constituent steps, cause and effect, therefore understanding it better. Research is now going on to look at reflective writing as a tool in post-operative recovery.
So why aren’t GPs suggesting journals instead of handing out anti-depressants? Pennebaker said the process was most successful when people harboured secrets of traumatic experiences and it doesn’t work for everyone. In fact, he says that people who regularly keep a journal are often sicker! This is often because they have more problems to start with, but he also says that writing too much is detrimental. When we write over and over about a situation or our current position in life, we can set up a ruminative cycle, which is unproductive for us. By mulling over the same issues, we revel in moaning and complaining and build up a ‘woe is me’ mentality. This isn't helpful in the long run.
So – do you need to keep a journal? I don’t write every day. I tend to write when I have a particular issue, dilemma or if I’m feeling miserable and want to work out what the source of it is. Pennebaker says if you’re worrying or obsessing about a problem or you’re trying to get to the bottom of something – then write. If you need guidance, with special exercises and tools – then try my Self-Esteem Journal.