Mental Health

Journaling: The Healing Power of the Pen

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By Kimberlydawn Wisdom, M.D.

For decades, authors, poets and writers of all kinds have touted the art of writing as a method of healing. Writing allows you to process your own story and share challenging thoughts on the page that you don’t want to speak aloud.

And although you may have heard friends or relatives expound on their positive experiences of keeping a journal, research confirms it’s a remarkably effective tool for improving mind and body. Several studies suggest that daily expressive writing helps reduce stress, improve quality of life and may help people navigate challenging physical and mental health conditions.

Writing for Wellness     

Keeping a journal can have a big impact on your health – from reducing stress and depression to helping you stick with a weight-loss regimen. Here are just a few of the perks and possibilities of journal writing:

  • Process trauma: Writing about difficult experiences can help you release negative emotions and focus on silver linings. What did you gain from the experience? How did it change you? What have you learned that you can bring with you into the future?
  • Navigate grief: Journaling offers a unique opportunity for you to work through your feelings of loss in a healthy way. You may even try to connect on the page with someone you’ve lost through death, separation or divorce.
  • Battle depression and anxiety: Using pen and paper allows your mind to focus on the things that have been bothering you and work through them in a healthy way. You might even be able to pinpoint patterns of self-sabotage and devise better solutions.
  • Cultivate gratitude: Research confirms that counting your blessings rather than fixating on what’s missing enhances well-being, especially if you put it in writing.
  • Boost brain power: Processing your emotions through writing requires critical thinking, which stimulates your brain. There’s even research to suggest that reflective writing can improve decision making.
  • Achieve your goals: Keeping a journal is an ideal way to plot out your goals and track progress. No matter which pursuit or hobby you choose, documenting the steps you take can help you stay on course. 

How to Keep a Journal

Staring at a blank page can feel paralyzing — until you get used to it. These four strategies can help you get started:  

  1. Use pen (or pencil) and paper. Writing by hand taps into a different region of the brain than typing on a computer or smartphone. Plus, the process of using your hand to move the pen across the page encourages deeper reflection.
  2. Go beyond a brain dump. Rather than recap your day on the page, work through your emotions as you write. How did the experiences, events and interactions make you feel? What did you learn about yourself or someone else?
  3. Try a timer. To prevent feeling overwhelmed by the blank page, start with a short amount of time — even five minutes will suffice — and gradually work your way up to 15 or 20 minutes each session. 
  4. Release your judgement. Resist the urge to edit yourself harshly. You aren’t writing to win a Pulitzer Prize. Your only goal is to learn more about yourself, so just write.  
  5. Take a deep breath. Before you bring your pen to the page, take a few minutes to breathe deeply and center yourself. You might be surprised by how this stillness helps reduce stress and allows you to be in the moment.

Parting Notes  

There’s no right or wrong way to keep a journal. Whether you choose to write daily or once a week, the key is finding a practice that works for you and fits your lifestyle. Some people like to write at night. Others prefer to write in the morning. Still others take a midday break to put words on a page.

It doesn’t matter when you write — or whether you choose to write in a fancy journal or on a yellow legal pad. The important thing is to give your voice a venue. 

Since writing helps you get in touch with big emotions, it can be unsettling. It’s important to sit down with a professional if your journaling uncovers pain and trauma that makes you anxious or depressed. Sometimes the real power of the page is that it prompts you to take action.

To find a doctor or therapist at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

You can also read more wellness advice in our FeelWell section, so subscribe to get all the latest tips.


Written By:

Kimberlydawn Wisdom, M.D.

Kimberlydawn Wisdom, M.D., MS, is the Senior Vice President of Community Health & Equity and Chief Wellness & Diversity Officer for Henry Ford Health System. She served as Michigan’s first Surgeon General, appointed by Governor Jennifer M. Granholm in 2003. In February 2012, Dr. Wisdom was appointed by President Barack Obama to serve as a member of the Advisory Group on Prevention, Health Promotion, and Integrative and Public Health. She is the recipient of numerous awards, has authored several peer-reviewed publications, and appeared on national television, including ABC’s Nightline, and has presented to audiences across the country and internationally.
Dr. Wisdom is a board-certified Emergency Medicine physician.

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