Journal your way to better breathing: Can writing actually improve your health?
Last time we talked about exercise and how it can improve your breathing and your overall wellness. Today we're going to talk about another thing you can do to improve your health and wellbeing with COPD - journaling. Now, you might be thinking, "Journaling is fine for people who like to write, but there's no way that just writing can improve my health."
Well, according to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, some patients can improve by simply writing about their illness and other stressful issues. This study, done at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, revealed that, "Writing about traumatic life experiences helps patients suffering from asthma or rheumatoid arthritis improve their health." Although the study was done with patients who have arthritis and asthma and you have COPD, I think we can learn something from this that might help you feel better and breathe easier.
Here's how the study worked. Researcher Joshua Smyth and his colleagues in Stony Brook's psychiatry department separated a group of 112 asthma and arthritis patients and asked them to spend 20 minutes daily over three days writing either about their most stressful life events or about such neutral fare as their daily schedule. Those with arthritis who wrote about their trauma reported a 28% reduction in disease severity within four months, while the control group showed no change. Asthmatics who wrote about their trauma showed a 19% increase in lung function against no change in the control group.
Though many questions remain regarding the study, the data is considered "clinically relevant," certainly enough to suggest that psychological events impact medical events. Stress and stress relief are likely contributory to disease.
The study concluded, "Journal writing, which chronicles experiences of anxiety and disquietude, can serve as a vehicle for the expression of negative emotion. Assuming a physical-psychological connection, the release of negative emotion has a positive influence on physical well-being." The report also noted, "We're not telling people to throw away their medicines, but what this study tells us is that we need to pay attention to psychological factors when we are talking about the treatment of chronic illness."
So, this is all well and good, but do you have to write about how traumatic it is to live with your disease in order for journaling to do you any good? As a writer, I believe that journaling can be helpful - and healthful - simply by doing it.
A very unscientific study (that would be me listening carefully to people living successfully with COPD over many years) shows that people who keep some kind of record about their life and care with COPD fair better. I've discovered that keeping records - even if it is just recording neutral facts - can help pulmonary patients feel more in control of their disease, and their lives. In addition, it gives them more opportunities to express their feelings through journaling.
Here are some easy tips for basic journaling:
- Write something every day. Set aside a time each day, about 15 minutes. That's your time - just for you - nobody else. Feel free to return to your journal at other times in the day if you have something new to say or if something has happened - good or bad.
If you choose to journal the traditional way, on paper:
- Get an inexpensive spiral notebook, wide-lined. Your journal doesn't have to be fancy. Decorate the cover if you like.
- Get a fast pen. The jelly rollers are great, and colorful. And with a choice of colors you can write according to whatever mood you're in.
- If you prefer to journal on your computer, create a new file and type your journal entries. (Personally, I feel that there's nothing like touching the page with your pen and releasing your thoughts and words that way. Of course, whatever works best for you is the way to go).
- If you share a computer and want to keep your journal private, find a way to protect it with a password or by other means.
So, what to write? Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
- Write down the day, date, and time.
- What's the weather like today? What's the temperature outside? Is it cloudy? Sunny? Humid? What's the air quality?
- What do you see right now when you look out your window?
- Is it a good "air day", or a bad breathing day for you? We all know good and bad days are a huge issue for people with COPD. You might find it fun to mark the good days with a bright, happy sticker.
- Write down the medications you take. This can also be great information to show your doctor at your next appointment. If any of the medicines you take are ordered "prn," or "as needed" this is an effective way to keep track of how much or how many you've taken on each day.
- Jot down your activity for that day. Was it a busy day for you, or did you take it easy?
- Did you come in contact with anything in the air that irritated your breathing?
- Journal about the exercise you did on that day. (Note that activity and exercise are different.) We must exercise, and being busy is not the same as exercising.
- How do you feel about your lung disease today? Are you angry? Tired? Energetic? Sad? Depressed? Hopeless? Hopeful? Happy? Write, "I feel _______ today because..." and go from there, always being honest, writing down whatever comes to mind. If that sentence is all you write, that's fine, but I suspect you'll probably have a lot more to say! No matter what, there is no right and wrong when it comes to personal journaling.
COPD patient and advocate Jo-Von Tucker told us, "The blank page will listen to what you have to say, and no one else need ever read it, unless you want them to. You can express your feelings, your frustrations, your fears and your triumphs... at your own pace, in your own way. Keep it in a private place, and allow this wonderful form of self-expression to capture the thoughts that can't easily be shared out loud."
Try journaling over the next two weeks. Allow yourself the time to keep a record of what's going on with your breathing and how it is affecting your life - and your feelings if you're so inclined. Put pen to paper - or fingers to keyboard - and take up the challenge to achieve better control, and hopefully better breathing. Give it a try, and let us know how it goes!
For more information and a summary of the Journal Writing Study, click here: