Therapeutic Journaling To Reduce Stress and Heal From Trauma

As a former behavioral consultant to a large, hospital-based weight-loss program I often spoke to large audiences consisting of men and women who needed to lose weight for medical reasons. For these individuals, getting the weight off was a matter of life and death. A number of them told me that they were stressed and at their wits end. They felt they didn’t eat any more than their thin friends ate; and added that they probably even ate less! Some commented that even walking past a bakery semmed to cause them to put on weight. They felt defeated and anxious.

At the hospital, I taught cognitive-behavioral techniques to help people suffering from obesity to reach their goals, but the most powerful advice I ever gave clients who were stressed or frustrated—whether the issue was weight loss or not—was this:

WRITE ABOUT IT.

Write The Facts. Write Your Thoughts. Write Your Emotions. Write Out Your Solutions.

I asked my clients to think of where were they when they ate or binge ate; what event precipitated the eating chain; what were they feeling and what where the thoughts and beliefs related to the incident? Most important, I asked them to write out what could they do next time to avoid that same pitfall. Now they ended up with their own personalized guidebook; a concrete plan based on their experience and past patterns that they could measure and modify to overcome their challenges.

Writing helped them come up with a roadmap showing exactly how to reach their goals.

But the usefulness of journaling goes beyond the challenges of weight loss.

Over 30 years ago researcher James Pennebaker discovered that when we write about our stressors and our emotional traumas, we could potentially improve both our physical and emotional well-being. Since his landmark study in the 80’s many researchers have replicated and extended his work and found “expressive writing”, can positively impact the emotional/and or physical states associated with (but not limited to):

  • The stress of caregiving
  • Would healing in older adults
  • Breast Cancer Survivors
  • People afflicted with HIV
  • Men diagnosed with prostate cancer
  • Veterans readjusting to civilian life
  • Mood disorders
  • Pre-adolescent peer problems
  • Problems in romantic relationships
  • Alcohol intervention
  • Patients dealing with colorectal cancer
  • …And some research even shows a strengthening of the immune system after starting a journaling routine, as measured by certain bio-physiological markers as well as a decrease in number of visits to the health practitioner.

Freud believed that telling someone (a friend, a therapist, etc.) about our troubles is healing because of its cathartic effect. The same is probably true of what researchers call “expressive writing.” However, simply letting out your feelings on paper is not necessarily going to improve how you feel. Sitting down and writing one time and then never opening your journal again is probably not going to help either.

Here IS how to keep a “therapeutic journal” as a self-help tool that may help you deal with the stressors, challenges, and traumas that many of us baby boomers face. Such as:

  • Taking care of an aging parent or sick spouse
  • Putting your life together after the death of a spouse or other family member
  • Feeling stressed or depressed over current events
  • Being estranged from a loved one
  • Facing a work crisis or turning point
  • Coping with an illness or recent diagnosis
  • Worrying about finances
  • Losing a beloved pet
  • Being unable to let go of a past trauma

THE NUTS AND BOLTS OF EXPRESSIVE WRITING:

  1. Purchase a regular spiral notebook, or if you want to splurge, a nicely bound blank journal, to make your writing sessions special.
  2. Work on one issue at a time, but do it as follows:
    1. Write the facts about the situation
    2. Write about your emotions, primarily POSITIVE emotions of how you might achieve personal growth as a result of this experience.
    3. Write about solutions or resolutions.   This will help you to achieve a sense of control (as opposed to the world being an uncontrollable and uncertain place to be), and increase your self-efficacy (the belief that you can influence what happens to you, and/or how you react to what happens.
  3. Write regularly for sustained well-being. They can be brief 10-15 minute sessions every other day, or even 3x/week, but don’t put down your journal for months at a time if you want it to impact the quality of your life. If you set a regular time schedule for writing, it will become automatic, like brushing your teeth. You will even begin to look forward to it.

Remember, the goal of the therapeutic journal is not to ruminate on your negative emotions and re-traumatize yourself, but instead to find your way back to inner peace and well-being.

Do you journal? Has writing out your feelings and thoughts gotten your through some difficult situations? I’d love you to share your ideas in the comments section below!

And as always, feel free to forward this article (citing the original source) to anyone who you feel might benefit from it.

References:

Pennebaker, J.W. & Beall, S.K (1986). Confronting a traumatic event: Toward an understanding of inhibition and disease. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Vol 95 (3). 274-281.

Ulrich, P..M, & Lutgendorf, S.K, (2002). Journaling about stressful events: Effects of cognitive processing and emotional expression. The Society of Behavioral Medicine. Vol 24 (3).

 

© Raeleen Mautner, LLC 2018

8 thoughts on “Therapeutic Journaling To Reduce Stress and Heal From Trauma

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this.
    I have been dogged by trauma, as have many others, and am finding it really difficult to lift myself from the power of it. I came to the conclusion that to take my power back and work through all of it was to start my blog (complete newbie) and go through what happened in the hopes that the traumatic power diminishes its hold in my life.
    Blessings to you xxx

    1. You are very welcome, Sarah! I wish you all the best with your blog and especially on recovering from your trauma. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a good counselor or psychotherapist if you need some extra support–there are some wonderful ones out therewho can be a godsend in time of trauma and challenge. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts!

      1. Thank you Raeleen,
        I begin receiving counselling next week through a ‘talking therapies’ group in my area. Not sure how well this will go as I find it really difficult to physically talk about whats happened. I get a huge lump in my throat, heart palpitations, sweats and shaking when I try to speak. I’m hopeful though xxx

  2. Great tips – I used to journal when I was younger. I enjoy blogging now – try to make it therapeutic. Just started a new one as I feel I outgrew the old one. My goal is to think about and share my aging process – and work through the emotions associated with it – good and not so good. Thank you! Glad I stumbled on your blog.

  3. Thank you, Dr. Mautner, for these practical steps for journaling. I am an on-again, off-again writer, but usually dwell on negative feelings. I do keep a tiny Daily Journal of one thing that was funny or memorable each day and revisit those often. When my son died unexpectedly almost two years ago, I combined art and writing….poetry and watercolor abstracts that soothed my anguish. Nature journaling has been my favorite, but now I am entering a chapter of caregiving and seem to have less and less time to do any journaling. Keep your wonderful inspiring words coming.I do enjoy these articles.

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