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Prof: Journal writing becomes therapy

BY JENNIFER DELGADO | FEBRUARY 16, 2009 7:50 AM

UI freshman Serena Everhart said she writes in a journal weekly — it’s one way the Muscatine native relieves some of her stress from classes, extracurricular activities, and work.

“There are many things you just don’t want to talk to people about,” the English-education major said. “It’s a relief that it’s not kept inside of you.”

But writing in a journal is more than just an escape — research shows it comes with health benefits, too.

Howard Butcher, an associate professor in the College of Nursing, looked at writing as an intervention and measured its effects on an individual’s physiology and mental health. Butcher studied Alzheimer’s disease caregivers who wrote in journals about their emotional thoughts a few times a week. He found those who wrote expressively about current traumas had lower stress levels than those who wrote in journas about nonemotional topics, such as their favorite TV program or what they ate for dinner.

“A lot of people keep diaries and they enjoy that,” Butcher said. “Until this research, we didn’t know that it physiologically and psychologically makes a difference.”

Butcher’s findings complement other studies that show emotional writing has positive advantages.
Almost 20 years ago, James Pennebaker, a professor at the University of Texas-Austin, found students who wrote in journals over the course of a semester reported positive moods, fewer illnesses, and didn’t make as many health-clinic visits than students who didn’t write.

Butcher said along with Pennebaker’s study, his interest in writing stems from his work as a nurse therapist — he often encourages others to use a narrative approach to therapy. Since he began teaching at the UI in 1998, Butcher said, he has frequently visited classrooms and talked to students about the benefits of writing.

“We know now there is definitely something going on here,” Butcher said. “Studies have shown consistently that people who write in journals in this way have health benefits.”

Patrick Dolan, the instructor of Writing Through Loss at the Iowa City Hospice, said he agreed with studies he has read on journals’ effects on stress. He has kept a journal since 1974.
“Professor Butcher’s work is very important to getting a better picture of what works and what doesn’t and what the benefits are,” he said.

A lecturer in the UI rhetoric department, Dolan said although the study of writing’s effect on people’s lives is just beginning, there can be numerous intellectual, personal, and even spiritual benefits from keeping a journal.

“Benefits include stress release, processing of emotionally important experiences, and assistance with mindful decision making,” Dolan said.

Although Butcher’s work focuses on an older audience, both he and Dolan agreed writing in general can be helpful for all ages.

“It feels great to get your feelings out on paper,” Butcher said. “The idea is to put as much emotion in your writing as possible."


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