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Health Benefits of Journal Writing
By Chris Woolston, M.S.
Researchers have found that people who write about their deepest thoughts and feelings surrounding upsetting events have stronger immunity and visit their doctors half as often as those who write only about minor events. Exciting research in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that writing about a stressful experience reduces physical symptoms in patients with chronic illnesses. One study of 112 patients with arthritis or asthma showed amazing results.
Even psychologists get the blues. As James Pennebaker's marriage started to flounder, the noted therapist sunk into a massive depression. After a month of misery, he turned to a trusted source of comfort: his typewriter. Each afternoon, he pounded out his thoughts about his failing marriage and other crucial issues, from sex to death. He didn't realize it at the time, but the words on those pages would turn his life around.
As Pennebaker notes in his book Opening Up (Guilford Press, 1997), his typewriter quickly led him out of depression. "For the first time in years -- perhaps ever -- I had a sense of meaning and direction," he writes.Pennebaker's experience inspired him to devote much of his career to studying the therapeutic value of writing. Over the years, he and many other researchers have found that writing consistently makes people feel happier and healthier. In fact, recent research suggests it may even help ease the symptoms of serious non-psychiatric diseases.
What type of writing works best?
It's not fiction, poetry, or the daily musings that most people put in their diaries. In every study, subjects got the most benefit by writing about stressful or traumatic events in their lives. Such writing is emotionally taxing, and people often feel heavy-hearted as they put their darkest memories into words. But the short-term pain leads to some impressive rewards. What are the benefits of writing? Whether the writers are medical school students or prisoners, grade-schoolers or nursing home residents, the results are the same:
Writing works
Blood tests show that subjects have more robust immune systems several weeks after completing such writing exercises, according to Pennebaker. They also tend to take fewer trips to the doctor, report lower levels of pain, use fewer medications, function better in day-to-day tasks, and score higher on tests of psychological well-being.
As Pennebaker and many others have discovered, writing is an especially effective remedy for depression. Countless patients have felt their spirits lift as they captured their anxieties and concerns on paper. And in a recent study at Carnegie Mellon University, students who wrote about their anxieties concerning an upcoming exam were much less likely than other students to show signs of depression. The value of writing goes beyond mood disorders. A groundbreaking study published in the April 14, 1999 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that writing about past traumas can even ease the symptoms of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. Encouraged by these results, researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the University of Texas recruited 45 elderly patients from primary care clinics for a new study. Most of these patients had everyday complaints of joint pain, back pain, and stomach problems. Three months later, groups studied enjoyed minor improvement in their symptoms. They also made fewer trips to the doctor and spent less on health care in the following three months. The savings were twice as large for the group that explored stressful events.
The researchers concluded that simple writing exercises could be a practical, effective therapy for primary care patients everywhere.  
How does writing improve health?
Nobody knows, but the answer probably lies somewhere in the strong connections between stress and disease, says Pennebaker, now a professor of psychology at the University of Texas. Not only can emotional stress lead to depression, it can weaken the immune system, promote heart disease, and worsen the course of arthritis, asthma, cancer, and many other diseases, according to the latest research in neuroscience. And, as Pennebaker explains in his book Opening Up, festering memories can be a major source of stress.
Putting such memories on paper can help defuse the danger, he says. Writing forces a person to confront the past one word at a time, and traumas don't seem so overwhelming when they're broken into such small increments. It also gives a person the perfect opportunity to explore and gain new insight into his or her feelings. In fact, studies show that people who use words such as "understand" and "realize" in their writings enjoy the greatest improvements in physical and psychological health.
Pennebaker elaborated on these themes in a report in the Journal of Clinical Psychology. In theory, he writes, "the act of converting emotions and image into words changes the way a person organizes and thinks about the trauma." And once a person captures a negative event in narrative form, "the event can now be summarized, stored, and forgotten more efficiently."Because writing is so effective at alleviating emotional pain, Pennebaker believes the process can help treat a wide range of stress-related conditions in addition to asthma and arthritis. In a series of recent studies, Pennebaker and his colleagues have found that writing shows promise as a treatment for smoking cessation, depression, and in improving the health of HIV-positive patients. 
Putting pen to paper
Pennebaker suggests writing about life's current stresses -- not necessarily events from the past -- whenever your spirits sag. You can write anywhere, but if possible, choose a quiet room where you know you won't be interrupted. Pay no attention to sentence structure or grammar: Just write constantly for 20 minutes or so. Try to objectively describe the stressful situation and explore your feelings. When you're done, keep the words to yourself. Writing for an audience may prevent you from truly opening up on paper.
Remember, the actual writing process may be uncomfortable, even exhausting or painful. If you feel yourself losing control of your emotions, take a break and try again later. As the great Czech writer and former president Vaclav Havel once wrote, "I do so often write in a state of agitation, depression, unhappiness, and despair, because I find writing so difficult, and because I am so seldom satisfied with what I write. But when -- in my happy moments -- my work goes well and proceeds as I had imagined or even better, I rejoice and am as happy as a child.... My sense is that, however absurd, tragic, depressing, or cruel [the story] might be, and despite its upsetting qualities -- indeed through them -- I would certainly feel it delightful, liberating, and elevating, perhaps to the point of tears. I would be delighted to hear things called by their proper names once more, delighted that being was revealed in all its fullness, and therefore all was not lost.
"Such an experience can't possibly depress me -- in fact, it greatly strengthens my conviction that somehow everything makes sense: our life, our toiling and moiling, our god-forsaken world; in short, that there is some genuine hope left." As Havel suggests, if you keep up with your writing project, you'll end up with more than a few pages of words. You'll have new insights and a new sense of control. And if Pennebaker and other researchers are correct, you just might write your way to better health.
Developing a deeper understanding of the event and the emotions it generates helps the brain digest the information. When you analyze a traumatic event, your brain turns it into a story that’s stored more easily.
Storytelling can simplify a complex experience. While many people who journal on a regular basis do so because it makes them feel better, until recently there hasn’t been any scientific evidence to prove it. Journal writing has the lowest risk factor imaginable, mentally as well as financially, providing you with the gentlest and safest of therapies. No expertise required, no minimum time required, and you don’t lose the benefits if you miss a time period. There are even instances where the process of journal writing has sustained the writer beyond her anticipated life span, where she lived on precisely in order to finish saying what she had to say.  

Unlike more physical stress management techniques such as yoga or exercise, journaling is a viable option for the disabled. And, although some prefer to use a computer, journaling requires only a pen and paper, so it’s less expensive than techniques that require the aid of a class, book, teacher or therapist.

-- Chris Woolston, M.S., is a health and medical writer with a master's degree in biology. He is a contributing editor at Consumer Health Interactive, and was the staff writer at Hippocrates, a magazine for physicians. He has also covered science issues for Time Inc. Health, WebMD, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. His reporting on occupational health earned him an award from the northern California Society of Professional Journalists. 

The following is a list of high interest areas for Information On The Health Benefits Of Journal Writing. 
Websites are provided to conveniently copy and paste in your browser.
Dr. James Pennebaker
Chris Woolston, M.S
Nancy Morgan
Nancy Morgan has incorporated writing as part of the therapy at Georgetown's Lombardi Cancer Clinic.
Sue Meyn
The journal, she says, is powerful because the user is powerful.  Each of us has his or her own power, inner resources and gifts, which Sue refers to as individual "magic."

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Journals in the Classroom

Flexible Instructional Tools

Journal writing is an incredibly flexible instructional tool, useful across the entire curriculum, and is a Tax write-off for schools as an instructional tool. 

While often used as a class startup activity, it is used primarily to give students an opportunity to speculate on paper, confident that their ideas, observations, emotions, and writing will be accepted without criticism.

Benefits of Journals

The potential benefits of journal writing are many, including opportunities to:

  • Sort out experiences, solve problems and consider varying perspectives.
  • Examine relationships with others and the world.
  • Reflect on personal values, goals, and ideals.
  • Summarize ideas, experience and opinions before and after instruction.
  • Witness his/ her academic and personal growth by reading past entries.

By reading journal entries, teachers get to know students'
  • anxieties
  • problems
  • excitements
  • joys
and with this information, make plans tailored for their students.
Using Time Wisely in the Classroom
Instructional time does not have to be sacrificed.   Simply limit journal writing to five or ten minutes a period.A more interesting approach to conserving time, however, is to assign journal topics relating to the instructional topic of the day.

For example, you could ask students to write a definition of a concept at the beginning of the period and at the end of the period to describe how their concept had changed.
Academic Journals
Curriculum oriented journal entries have the advantage of causing students to relate personally to the topic before instruction begins. Asking for a summary of learning or for a question or two the student still has at the end of the period causes the student to process and organize his or her thoughts about the material covered.
Journal Topics
Self Understanding and Clarifying Thoughts and Positions
Topics dealing with various aspects of "who I am, why I'm that way, what I value, and what I believe."
Topics dealing with "what I want in a friend, who are my friends, what I expect of friends, and how I relate to family members, teachers, and other significant people in my life."
Speculation and Viewing from a Different Perspective
Topics causing the writer to predict or see things from an unusual perspective. These may be highly creative, such as "describe the events of yesterday from the perspective of your
Generic starters in this list should make writing journal topics a cinch.  Many thanks to Robin Rhea and Lynn Rochell for contributing journal topic.
Student Privacy*
Students should be cautioned to remove extremely personal entries from their journals whether they are kept in the classroom or not.
* Entries the student regards personal, but that wouldn't devastate their lives if they fell into the wrong hands, can be folded and stapled closed. Teachers can assure students they will not read stapled pages and that the condition of the stapled paper would prove it had not been disturbed.
*Students should be protected from having other students read their journals by secure storage.
Should you read journals?
Whether the teacher should read journals is debatable. On one hand, the teacher may wish to provide privacy so the student will have maximum freedom for expressing emotions.On the other, reading entries and making an occasional comment on an entry helps establish a personal relationship. It also allows the teacher to use the journal for start up activities which must occasionally be monitored to assure participation. This is particularly important for academic journal topics and the use of journals for a start up activity. Explore the different ways to incorporate journal writing into the classroom.
Students and teachers will benefit greatly by the journal.Often when we think of journals, we automatically think of our most personal thoughts being written on some elegant journal paper bound in a leather book. However this is only one avenue to use the journal inside and outside the classroom. Inviting students’ to utilize journals in elementary, high school, and post secondary education is an excellent tool for students to learn and reflect about a variety of concepts.
The biggest benefit of journal writing is the teacher gains insight on the students thinking about any concept. If the teacher convinces the students the journal is a safe environment to write about their strengths and weaknesses for a concept both will learn a great deal. Often students forget about material because they have not reflected on its purpose.
Journal entry for specific themes:
On the weekend…If I won a million dollars…I invented…
Journal entry to reflect on characters in a book:
The main character reminds me of …If I could be any character I would be…Students write a journal entry to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses in writing, reading, and grammar.
Students are able to use the journal as a forum to tell the teacher what they are having a difficult time understanding and what skills they have mastered.
I do not understand…I have no problem…


Students use the math journal to solve a problem and highlight their difficulties.


Students use the science journal to write their ideas and thoughts on an experiment.

Physical Education and Health

There is a big push for students to become healthier in body but often it is the mind that holds them back. It would be beneficial for students to write about
their experiences in gym classes and why or why not they choose to participate. Students can reflect in their journals about alcohol, drugs, and much more.
For more information go to:

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Explore the different ways to incorporate journal writing into the classroom. Students and teachers will benefit greatly by the journal.  Explore the different ways to incorporate journal writing into the classroom. Students and teachers will benefit greatly by ...

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Journals in the Classroom

Journal writing is an incredibly flexible instructional tool, useful across ... entries from their journals whether they are kept in the classroom or not. ...