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Keeping a journal can help you live through life's most difficult times and heal

Twenty-five years after returning from Madagascar, where I had taught English to the children of missionaries, I met one of my former students (I’ll call her Ann) who exclaimed, “You saved my life!”

“I did? How?” I asked.

“By teaching us to keep a journal,” Ann said. “When I returned to the U.S. as a young teenager, I was miserable. I had no friends. I didn’t know how to act. I was such an outsider. If I hadn’t been able to write my feelings out in my journal, I would have killed myself!” And now Ann is happily married, with two lovely children.

Many people, like Ann, begin journal-writing in a crisis. The journal becomes a place to release emotions, make sense of the situation and find healing. Recent scientific studies have concluded that people who have experienced some difficult situation—illness, grief, divorce, job loss, relationship problems—come through it better, with greater health and well-being, if they write about it.

The premier researcher about writing as a way of healing is James W. Pennebaker, a psychology professor at Southern Methodist University, Dallas. In a series of experiments he found that people who wrote 15 minutes a day about stressful events experienced greater mental and physical health than those who didn’t.

In Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions (The Guilford Press, 1997) Pennebaker wrote: “When people write about major upheavals, they begin to organize and understand them. Writing about the thoughts and feelings of traumas … forces individuals to bring together the many facets of overwhelming experiences.”


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