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Write to Heal: Personal Journal Keeping

By Joan Leof

When Christina Baldwin wrote a book about journaling called One to One: Self Understanding Though Journal Writing, in the early 70's, the Library of Congress had to create a new category for her tome and others like it. In 2009, the International Association for Journal Writers (IAJW) was created with a council of 30 of the best known experts in the field of journaling, including Christina Baldwin. It now has 400 members from around the world.

What happened in those few decades to create the explosion of books and software programs and the sale of blank journals? According to Alexandra Johnson in her book Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal, "Ten million blank journals are sold annually in stationery stores. Two million in specialty stores. Thanks to secret passwords and specialized software, an estimated four million scribblers keep some form of journal on a computer."

The concept of recording stories of one's life was certainly not new. People have been keeping diaries for centuries. What was new was the burgeoning research that writing about your life, both the painful issues as well as those things for which you are grateful, can actually benefit your health.

Psychologist, James Pennebaker, Ph.D, was an early pioneer in the research in the late 1980's. An early summary of his work says: "His research concluded that by writing about the most traumatic event in a person's life, the participants stayed healthier than those who wrote about mundane topics, such as describing a room." Around the same time, Joshua M. Smyth, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at North Dakota University, published a study that showed, "...47% of patients with asthma and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) improved after writing about the most traumatic events in their lives."

To many of the participants in the journal workshops I have been facilitating for over 25 years, there is surprise when I say journaling is not just writing about one's pain. Research on writing about gratitude is also proving to be a potent healer. Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., psychologist and a pioneer in this research says, "In an experimental comparison, those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events."

Clearly, according to these researchers, and many others, journaling can greatly benefit body, mind, and spirit. So, how can you embrace this healing and transformative practice with the same discipline and devotion with which you don your exercise shoes, drink your spring water, do your stress reduction techniques, and eat your favorite fruits and vegetables?

"There is only one rule about journaling," I tell my amazed students. "Can you guess what it is?" When no one gets the right answer, which is half of the time, I say, "It starts with an h or an a." "Honesty," someone finally yells out, or "authenticity."

"Yes, I say, "that is the only one rule. This is the one place you should be able to go where the only other rules are what you create for yourself, and I can merely be a guide to help you create them."

I then proceed to shatter all the myths they bring about journaling. Journaling, in the "healing" or transformative sense is NOT about how often you write, or how long or detailed your entries are, or how creative and eloquent. It is, rather, how committed you are to your own process of personal growth, to discovering your authenticity and potentiality for healing and transformation. Always stressing I am not a therapist, just a catalyst, I offer journaling techniques and resources for them to deal with both their journaling issues and life issues. No one ever has to share anything they write.

Lois Guarnino captured the challenge and gift of journaling better than anything I have read on the topic in her book called Writing Your Authentic Self. She speaks to the "paradox of journal writing" when she says, "While it's true that your journal is a safe place where you can cover any topic and not worry about the world pointing fingers, you may end up pointing the finger at yourself. You may learn things in your journal that make you want to grow and change: this means your inner journey is progressing."

Let your finger-pointing begin. And don't forget to throw in some of things you are grateful for. When you drink your spring water, eat your favorite fruits and vegetables, tie up your exercise shoes, and do your stress reduction techniques, remember to include writing in your journal as another way to stay well.

Learn more about Joan Leof and Write to Heal's Services and Products

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