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Physician Health and Well-Being: Emotional Journaling for Health and Healing

Emotional Journaling for Health and Healing
By John A. Patterson MD, MSPH, FAAFP, ABIHM
Founding co-chair LMS Physician Wellness Program

Emotional journaling can help you access inner wisdom that can be used for health and healing.

       Journal writing is a simple, inexpensive, convenient form of self-care. Research shows that emotionally expressive journal writing can lower high blood pressure, reduce arthritis pain, asthma severity and cancer pain, promote wound healing and enhance immune function in HIV/AIDS.
       Journaling can also help relieve the stress and emotional suffering of insomnia, anxiety, depression, grief, cancer survivorship, anger, loneliness, traumatic events, eating disorders and addiction to tobacco, drugs and alcohol.

       Beyond its use in alleviating these forms of pain and suffering, journal writing can increase your sense of mental, emotional and spiritual well being, build resilience, enhance emotional intelligence and nurture creativity. Emotional journaling can improve communication and relationships, identify purpose and meaning, clarify deepest values and ignite a personal passion for your unique life path by cultivating acceptance, gratitude, happiness, forgiveness and compassion.

       For instance, try writing down everything you are grateful for. My list includes: waking up today, with all my senses intact, having access to healthy food, hearing children’s laughter, my dog GiGi and sharing love with friends and family. Keep the list and add to it over several days. Over time, gratitude can be felt at surprisingly unexpected moments as you have learned to see the gratitude in the present, at the time it arises. The seeds of gratitude are always there. They take root, sprout and grow when they are watered, fertilized and cultivated by your attention.

       Journal writing should not be considered a substitute for professional help when your level of distress is severe. Physical pain and emotional suffering may sometimes require consultations from medical or mental health providers or from trusted clergy or pastoral counselors. And like medication, even journal writing can have side effects. Writing only about the details of traumatic events could make you feel worse. If there is a question about your response to journaling, speak with a trusted professional.

       Most people experience journal writing as a positive and therapeutic experience. In fact, the remarkable thing about therapeutic journal writing is its ability to provide insight into life’s problems, reduce physical pain, relieve mental, emotional and spiritual suffering, sometimes as effectively as prescribed medication and professional counseling.

       Psychologist James W Pennebaker points out that it is often best not to write about one’s illness directly. He recommends starting by writing about a teacher or book that positively influenced your life. He also suggests writing a letter to yourself as a child to help mobilize self-nurturing feelings. The goal here is not the production of a written product but the interior experience that results from it. You may wish to save your writing but you can also destroy what you’ve written, since the emotional awareness of the act of writing was the goal, not the written product itself.

       In Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma and Emotional Upheaval, Pennebaker suggests this simple exercisefor anyone bothered by a stressful event or past turmoil. 1) Write for 20 minutes per day for four days 2) Write about a major conflict or stressor in your life, something personal and important 3) Write without stopping until you feel a good stopping point; don’t worry about spelling and grammar like you did in school 4) Write for your eyes only 5) If writing makes you feel worse- stop. You can increase your happiness and joy by writing about pleasant, uplifting emotions and loving relationships.
       Notice how different this is from most diary entries or journaling.  The usual diary habit of recording the day’s events in a log-type manner is very different from emotional writing.
       Whether typing or handwriting, just start with a blank page and begin writing. You might try writing daily as a commitment to the practice or simply keep a journal handy and write as needed. Keep a pen and paper by your bed and write down your dreams. Grief is a particularly unpredictable emotion, with waves coming and going without warning. Writing down and capturing these waves in the moment, as they occur, can be extremely helpful in grief recovery.
       The goal is to identify your feelings and write about them- cultivating your emotional intelligence. For ages, people have begun writing with ‘Dear Diary’, illustrating the relationship that may develop between you and your trusted journal.
       Rachel Remen MD taught me the Heart Journal, or 3 Question Journal, which she learned from the work of Angeles Arrien, cultural anthropologist. At bedtime each night, reflecting back on your day, ask yourself three questions- What surprised me today? What touched my heart today? What inspired me today? Write down your answers, or simply let them relax your body, quiet your mind and open your heart as you fall asleep.
       When I journal like this regularly, my days become more alive with surprises and inspirations and moments that touch my heart.


 James W Pennebaker, Writing and Health- Some Practical Advice

Rachel Remen, Keeping a Heart Journal

Writing Down to the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Natalie Goldberg

About the Author- Dr Patterson practiced family medicine in Irvine KY for 30 years. He is past president of the Kentucky Academy of Family Physicians and is certified in family medicine, mind body medicine, integrative holistic medicine, mindfulness-based stress reduction, physician coaching and yoga therapy. He teaches mindfulness and stress management for the University of Kentucky Health and Wellnesss, Saybrook College of Integrative Medicine and Health Sciences (Pasadena) and the Center for Mind Body Medicine (Washington, DC). He operates the Mind Body Studio in Lexington, where he offers classes, consultations and coaching to manage stress-related conditions and prevent burnout. He can be reached through his website at