Journaling is one of WYG’s favorite, go-to, grief coping methods for many reasons. First, it offers you a simple way to cope that requires only a pen and paper (or computer or tablet). Second, it doesn’t require you to ‘talk it out’ if you don’t want to. Third, and perhaps most importantly, there are many psychological and physical benefits of grief journaling.
Despite the up-sides to journaling, it’s an underutilized coping skill. Even people who think they’d definitely like to write or journal ultimately don’t because they’re worried they won’t be good at it or think they don’t have the time. If this is you, you know what we’re talking about.
And you know what? We’re guilty of the same. We’ll admit to spending our fair share on crisp new journals that end up gathering dust on the shelf after only a few entries. Committing to a regular practice is hard, whether that practice is writing, exercise, meditation, art, or anything else.
This kind of routine requires motivation, energy, and dedication — you know, all those things that have been in short supply since you started grieving. Not to mention, writing about painful experiences can be intimidating! The irony, of course, is that regularly engaging in positive practices like journaling can improve things like motivation, outlook, and well-being.
We believe in the therapeutic value of writing, but we also know it can be challenging to integrate the practice in your day-to-day life. So today we want to provide those of you who are unsure or struggling with a little extra motivation for making this practice work. We want to make sure you know why this practice can be so beneficial and why it’s worth your time and effort.
Reason #1: Writing About Your Experiences Combats Avoidance
Journaling about grief requires you to take a closer look at your grief-related memories and experiences rather than avoiding them. When we talk about avoidance in regards to grief, we are usually referring to experiential avoidance. Experiential avoidance is an attempt to block out, reduce or change unpleasant thoughts, emotions or bodily sensations.
Grievers deal with a barrage of traumatic memories, painful emotions, logistical issues, secondary losses, and so on. It’s no surprise that many people choose to avoid grief-related triggers, people, places, and things in an effort to achieve some semblance of ‘normalcy.’
Though small amounts of avoidance can give you a break from your grief, chronic experiential avoidance can cause larger problems. Painful memories and emotions often don’t go away on their own, so if you actively avoid them in an ongoing way, they stick around and you never learn to cope with them.
The fact of the matter is, certain memories and emotions may never go away – period – so it’s important to learn how to function in a healthy way even in the presence of your grief. Further, avoiding potentially triggering thoughts about your loved one can prevent you from having a meaningful and ongoing relationship with their memory.
Reason #2: Physical Health Benefits of Journaling
Research conducted by James W. Pennebaker and Joshua M. Smyth found that when people write about difficult and traumatic experiences, they sometimes reach a “letting go” state. They found that in this state participants actually experienced changes in their writing style, voice, and pace as they let out intense details around their difficult or traumatic experiences.
When they researched the deeper physiological implications of this, they found something interesting. When people went through a letting go experience while writing about their pain or trauma, their physical stress responses (things like heart rate and blood pressure) went way up. When they measured those things after people finished writing, their numbers dropped to lower than they had been to start and they stayed there.
These findings have been replicated in follow-up physiological studies, including one where people who had heart attacks were split into two groups – one group who wrote their thoughts and feelings about the experience of having the heart attack and one group who wrote about neutral topics.
The group who wrote about their feelings around the heart attack needed less prescribed medications, had fewer cardiac symptoms, and lower diastolic blood pressure than the group who didn’t write about the experience and was still the case five months later. Crazy, right?
Another study worked with individuals with asthma or rheumatoid arthritis who were split into two groups. One group was asked to write about the most traumatic experience of their life and the other to write about something neutral and benign. The results? The group who had asthma and wrote about a traumatic event had statistically significant improvements in lung function, those with arthritis had statistically significant improvements in joint health, whereas the control group didn’t see these benefits.
What is even more interesting is how dramatic the improvements were. People reported functional improvements that were on par with what would be expected when taking a new medication. Studies like this have now been repeated with those suffering from numerous other illnesses with similar results.
Reason #3: Mental Health Benefits of Journaling
Interestingly, the research on journaling and mental health outcomes is limited as compared to journaling and physical outcomes. Luckily the research that does exist confirms what you might have guessed: writing helps. Writing has been found to reduce symptoms of depression as well as anxiety.
Reason #4: Better Sleep
For many reasons, grief can impact your sleep pattern. Some people find they sleep too much; some people find they sleep too little; some people find they lay awake at night staring at their ceiling thinking about all their fears, anxieties, worries, sadnesses, the empty space beside them in the bed…you get the picture.
Research has found that writing or talking about worries, concerns, or other difficult thoughts before going to bed can reduce ruminative thoughts, help people fall asleep quicker, and improve the quality of sleep. And, though this probably goes without saying, better sleep equals improvements in overall functioning.
Reason #5: Writing is Beneficial for those Seeking Constructive Ways to Cope with Grief
In initial studies on grief and writing, researchers found something interesting: writing didn’t seem to help! It didn’t hurt, but it wasn’t helpful either. This really didn’t jive with existing research which indicated that writing helped those struggling with difficult or traumatic experiences. Why would grief and loss be any different?
When the researchers decided to take a closer look at the data they found that the participants in their study had not been seeking grief help or support at the time of their participation. So researchers conducted new studies, this time with individuals who had lost a loved one and who were looking for support in coping with their grief.
The results of these studies showed that interventions like expressive writing were helpful for those who were grieving and looking for constructive ways to cope with their grief.
These studies and many others are outlined and referenced in the books by Pennebaker and Smyth. If you want to read more about research on expressive writing and traumatic experiences, we would recommend you check out this book.
If you want help and motivation in establishing a grief-journaling practice, check out our e-course Self-Guided 30-Day Grief Journaling Intensive from which portions of this article were excerpted.