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.
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“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.
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 can be beneficial to one’s mental health, the act of food journaling has shown 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, such as 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 to keep 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.
“If I was ever getting sick or getting off track, I’d pick up my journal again,” she said.
Meiers also kept a personal journal while completing her master’s degree in English.
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.
“You just kind of unload everything,” she said. “It was a stress reliever, kind of. It gets something off your mind and off your chest. You just work out things you never realized were even an issue.”
Meiers said the two types of journaling 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.”
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.”