Dr. Laura King and Dr. James Pennebaker have done some of the earliest and most profound research on the power of journaling. They’ve found a number of interesting outcomes, whether someone is writing about past trauma or about their hopes and dreams for the future. Self-disclosure through writing appears to regulate moods by giving us a safe emotional outlet, a way to put to life into perspective, and a fresh way to ignite hopefulness about the future.
The main discoveries indicate that actively holding back or inhibiting our thoughts and feelings can be hard work. Over time, the work of inhibition gradually undermines the body’s defenses. Like other stressors, inhibition can affect immune function, the action of the heart and vascular systems, and even the biochemical workings of the brain and nervous systems. In short, excessive holding back of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can place people at risk for both major and minor diseases.
Whereas inhibition is potentially harmful, confronting our deepest thoughts and feelings can have remarkable short-and long-term health benefits. Confession, whether by writing or talking, can neutralize many of the problems of inhibition. Furthermore, writing or talking about upsetting things can influence our basic values, our daily thinking patterns, and feelings about ourselves. In short, there appears to be something akin to an urge to confess. Not disclosing our thoughts and feelings can be unhealthy. Divulging them can be healthy.
Once we understand the link between a psychological event and a recurring health problem, our health improves. Let us examine the holding back-letting go continuum:
Inhibition is physical work. To actively inhibit one’s thoughts, feelings, or behaviors require physiological work. Active inhibition means that people must consciously restrain, hold back, or in some way exert effort to not think, feel, or behave.
Inhibition affects short-term biological changes and long-term health. Active inhibition can be viewed as one of many general stressors that affect the mind and body. Obviously, the harder one must work inhibiting, the greater the stress on the body.
Inhibition influences thinking abilities. By not talking about an inhibited event, for example, we usually do not translate the event into language. This prevents us from understanding and assimilating the event. The opposite pole of active inhibition is confrontation. Confrontation refers to individuals actively thinking and/or talking about significant experiences as well as acknowledging their emotions. Psychologically confronting traumas overcomes the effects of inhibition both physiologically and cognitively.
Confrontation reduces the effects of inhibition. The act of confronting a trauma immediately reduces the physiological work of inhibition. During confrontation, the biological stress of inhibition is immediately reduced. Over time, if individuals continue to confront and thereby resolve the trauma, there will be a lowering of the overall stress level on the body.
Confrontation forces a rethinking of events. Confronting a trauma helps people to understand and ultimately assimilate the event. By talking or writing about previously inhibited experiences, individuals translate the event into language. Once it is language based, people can better understand the experience and ultimately put it behind them.
One of the most intriguing findings about journaling came when King and Pennebaker asked research participants to write down their hopes and dreams for the future in a “Best Possible Self” exercise. These instructions were to write for 20 minutes, four days in a row, about their life in the future if everything had gone as well as possible and all of their goals were realized. Not only did the participants feel “significantly happier” after this assignment, but the positive impact-including improved health-lasted for weeks afterward.
There are many different ways to journal, including writing in notebooks, typing into private files, make bulleted lists of thoughts, and creating scrapbooks with words and pictures.