Journaling

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What is journaling?

Journaling is creating a written account of events and emotions that you experience. A journal can be as rough or complete as you choose. Some people find that they can't end the day without putting an entry into their journal.

Research has shown that journaling may be able to:

  • help people experience a greater sense of emotional well-being
  • help people feel better physically

What to expect with journaling

People approach journaling in a variety of ways. If you're interested in journaling, don't set any rules — express yourself in any way that feels comfortable.

  • Some people use a journal to write about their emotions during a tough time such as an illness, divorce, or death of a loved one.
  • People also use journals as a way to relieve the minor stresses of day-to-day living.
  • A journal can also be used to set personal goals and provide self-encouragement.
  • Journaling doesn't always have to mean writing. Some people find that sketching and drawing in their journals can help to express emotions.

Keeping a journal can also help a person to gain perspective. Journaling can allow you to compare how you felt months ago to how you feel now.

Journaling practitioner requirements

Since journaling is personal and unique to the individual, instructors or specialists are not required. If you do find that you'd like to seek guidance about journal writing, cancer organizations such as Cancer Support Community frequently offer journal-writing workshops.

Research on journaling in women with breast cancer

There haven't been many studies on journaling in people with breast cancer. 

One small 2002 study, conducted at the University of Kansas, followed 60 women with early-stage breast cancer who had just completed their treatment. The women were divided into 3 writing groups:

  • One group was asked to write their deepest thoughts and feelings about breast cancer, including hopes of recovery and fears of dying.
  • The second was to focus on the positive things that had happened during the breast cancer experience.
  • The third group was to simply report the facts about their treatment.

After 3 months, the first two groups, who wrote about their emotions, reported one-third fewer symptoms and medical appointments than the group whose writing was limited to the facts. Results of this study depended on how the women were coping before they started writing:

  • The women who tended to avoid thinking about having breast cancer:
    • improved more from focusing their writing on the positive thoughts and feelings that had arisen during their experience
    • had significantly fewer doctor visits for cancer-related issues
  • The women who expressed the full range of their thoughts and feelings about having breast cancer:
    • reported significantly fewer negative physical symptoms
    • had significantly fewer doctor visits for cancer-related issues

Although this study showed encouraging results, more studies will need to be done to determine which types of patients will benefit the most from emotional expression in writing.

Important things to consider before you try journaling

Journaling is generally viewed as a safe practice. However, journaling is not for everyone.

  • People who don't really enjoy writing may not benefit from journaling. If it feels like a chore, you may want to consider a different way to reduce stress.
  • If you're the kind of person who worries about the quality of your writing, penmanship, and readability, it might be difficult to let go and focus on your thoughts and feelings. If this is true for you, you may benefit from a more body-based therapy, such as yoga or tai chi.
  • Studies have shown that journaling only about negative feelings without including thoughts or goals may actually increase stress.

Back to Types of Complementary Techniques

Expert Quote

"I recommend that my patients keep a 'gratitude journal.' Positive entries and affirmations are recorded daily and reviewed at will. Any negative entries are written on 3 by 5 cards and then discarded. I feel it helps to keep my patients in the moment and focused on the blessings in their lives. The negatives are recognized, and then released."

-- Beth Baughman DuPree, M.D., F.A.C.S.

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