Can Journaling Help Us Manage Chronic Illness?
There's a lot of evidence for how helpful writing can be for people who experience the trauma and grief of illness — and chronic pain in particular. And, as a writer and poet, this deeply interests me. I have always had a deep inner knowledge that writing was my way forward, and my way of alchemizing and translating that which hurts or has been wounded into something beautiful or at least honest. I'm even taking Journaling Therapy.
"Translating important psychological events into words is uniquely human," says James Pennebaker, who pioneered something called Expressive Writing, which is — at its core — the act of journaling around traumatic experiences. If it sounds simple, that's because it is. But that doesn't make it any less impactful.
If "journaling" makes your hands hurt just thinking about it — know that you can expressively write on your phone using talk to text, on your computer, or any other method. There's some evidence that handwriting — due to its deliberateness and focus — is more powerful, but I'm all about accessibility, and I believe typing and talk-to-text funnel my thoughts beautifully.1 I'm an author of several books — and I definitely have not written them by hand!
It may help chronic pain
There's also evidence that journaling can help people with chronic pain, which is obviously very enticing to me as a writer, patient, and advocate. One study found that people who journaled about chronic pain had "increased understanding of chronic pain as a multifaceted experience and new insights into managing the chronic pain situation."2
The study also said, "Therapeutic writing may be used as a tool to express individual experiences and to improve adaptation to chronic pain. Our findings suggest therapeutic writing may strengthen cognitive behavioral therapy by facilitating cognitive restructuring processes."2
It may even improve symptoms
In fact, another review in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment found that "The immediate impact of expressive writing is usually a short-term increase in distress, negative mood and physical symptoms."3
What about the long term? It found that "Many studies have continued to find evidence of health benefits in terms of objectively assessed outcomes, self-reported physical health outcomes, and self-reported emotional health outcomes."3 The literature cites several benefits of journaling, including improved immune system functioning, reduced blood pressure, improved lung function, improved liver function, and reduced depressive symptoms.
While I myself haven't measured my before-and-after lung function, I do believe that when we stick to habits that are good for us, our bodies reflect that. I don't believe writing is a cure-all, nor a magic ticket. I don't believe writing is going to eliminate our need for medicine.
Rather, I think the evidence is compelling. Anything that gets us to confront ourselves, to meet ourselves with self-compassion, and to stop the worry spiral by getting it out of ourselves can be a powerful thing. When I'm in my worst state, or when I feel as though AS has me feeling small and weak and not myself, writing is a way of bringing me back home to myself. I am able to say, "here is what I feel, here is what I think, here is what I want." And in that honesty, there is a lot of autonomy.
Do you journal about your chronic illness? I would love to hear all about.
Can you tell when a flare is coming?