Journal-Keepers Use Daily Writing to Quell Stress

Sunday, October 13, 2013
Grand Forks, n.d. — Sitting up at 3 a.m. with various thoughts circling through her mind, Kathleen Coudle-King turns to her journal — a teal, leather journal with the words “Write Your Own Script” printed on the cover. She pulls out her black roller-ball pen and begins “dumping” all of her frustrations and anxieties onto the pages.

“I think of my brain as one of those electrical meters some nights,” she said, making the sound of a churning electrical current. “Writing is a way to slow it down.”

She writes in scattered phrases and lists for 10 to 15 minutes filling three or four pages before closing her journal and finally going to sleep.

Coudle-King, executive director of the Fire Hall Theatre and a senior lecturer at the University of North Dakota, has been journaling four to five days a week for nearly 20 years. She said the expressive writing is a way to free her mind from her worries, anxieties, fears and frustrations.

“I’ve found that it’s a good way to deal with anxiety,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s just a good way to dump anger.”

If Coudle-King is really upset with someone but can’t talk to them about it or if she is obsessing about something minor, she said she will write about it in her journal. “Often, once I get it on paper, I don’t have to keep revisiting it usually,” she said with a laugh. The creative writing teacher has taught journaling workshops and said she believes the act of journaling can free people to think more clearly. She said one of the great creative writing gurus, Julia Cameron, calls it “the morning pages.”

“When you wake up you write for 10 minutes, and you just go. Whatever is on your mind, your dreams, your anxieties for the day,” she said. “(Cameron) believes that what this does is free you up to do your writing.”

Coudle-King prefers to write at night, but she said it has the same effect. It allows her to clear her mind, so she can sleep.

James Pennebaker, a nationally known American social psychologist, has done extensive research on the topic of journaling as a route to healing. According to his book Writing to Heal, his research has shown that short-term focused writing can have a beneficial effect on everyone from those dealing with a terminal illness to victims of violent crime, to college students facing first-year transitions. His book is a how-to guide on writing expressively.

“When people are given the opportunity to write about emotional upheavals, they often experience improved health,” Pennebaker said. “They go to the doctor less. They have changes in immune function. If they are first-year college students, their grades tend to go up.”

Much like expressive journaling is beneficial to one’s mental health, the act of food journaling has been proven to be beneficial to one’s physical health.

In a 2012 study by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, researchers found that women who kept food records lost six more pounds on average than women who did not. The study also found the food journaling helped people lose weight more quickly and maintain the weight loss for a longer period of time.

Erin Meiers, of Grand Forks, N.D., said she turned to food journaling when she was trying to lose weight and gain muscle in preparation for the Fargo Fitness Show last year.

Every day, she recorded the details of her meals including the time, food, quantity, calories, carbohydrates and protein. She also recorded her specific goals like how much she wanted to lose and how much protein she needed to take.

“It helped to be conscious of what I was eating,” she said. “It helped with caloric intake and protein amounts.”

Meiers recorded her meals consistently for about one month, and inconsistently for about four. She said journaling was helpful in the beginning because it allowed her keep to track of how much and what types of food she was eating.

After a while, recording everything became more of a hassle, but Meiers said that journaling did help her stay on track and stick to her goals.

“It’s really good for keeping you on track, keeping you conscious. It keeps your mind there,” Meiers said. “If I was ever getting sick or getting off track, I’d pick up my journal again.”

Meiers, who also kept a personal journal while completing her master’s degree in English, said personal journaling and food journaling are completely opposite. “For me, the food journaling was much more tense because I had goals,” she said. “My journaling-journaling was more just to get things out. It wasn’t so strict.”

In her personal journal, Meiers wrote about anything from her dogs, to her 10-page paper that was due at the end of the week, to her home life.

Meiers said the two types of journaling also differed in that she would constantly look back at her food journal to see her progress, but she tended to leave her personal journal alone after writing.

Coudle-King expressed the same feelings about her personal journals, saying she rarely looks back on them. But, she said she understands why some people might go back and read their journals.

“Sometimes, life just moves so fast that you don’t have time to realize all the things you’ve done,” she said. “Sometimes, when you record your little successes in life, you can go back and read them.” She said New Year’s Eve and birthdays are a good time for one to look back and see where he or she was at last year.

Coudle-King said she prefers to live in the now and look to the future, rather than spending a lot of time reflecting on the past, so she doesn’t read her journals very often. But, she has kept all of them. Her dozen or more journals lie scattered around the house, some slightly hidden and some right on the top of her dresser.

“A friend and I joke that ‘if I die before you do, you have to go into the house, find the journals and burn them,’ ” she said, adding that they would have to do so without reading the journals because that’s practically “the 11th commandment.”

“I would advise anyone, don’t read anyone else’s journal,” she said. “Just don’t; don’t do it.”

Coudle-King said in order for people to journal successfully they need to trust that the people around them aren’t going to read their personal thoughts.

“Some people don’t keep journals because they’re afraid somebody’s going to find them,” she said. “And if you’re holding back, what’s the point of the journal. You need to be honest.”