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Writing Your Way Out of Depression

Dear Diary

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What journaling provides is a way of turning subjective thoughts to objective words on paper that can be analyzed, changed, even destroyed, says Rank. "Once your thoughts are externalized ... once they're out of your head and onto paper, there's no longer a mystique attached to them," he says.

Keeping a journal forces you to be honest, Rank continues. Write for yourself only, he advises. At some point, though, you will want to share the journal with someone -- a therapist, a friend, or a family member whom you trust implicitly. "That's when the real healing begins," Rank says. "By sharing your thoughts, you're accepting the idea that none of us can do things alone. To get through depression or trauma, we need feedback."

Writing about important personal experiences is not only good for your mental health, but your physical health as well, says James Pennebaker, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Texas in Austin. Pennebaker, author of Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, has been hailed as the "guru" of "confession research," and in numerous studies has found that writing about upsetting personal experiences for just 20 minutes at a time, over three or four days, can result in a significant drop in blood pressure and a healthier immune system.

Catherine Carlo, MSW, an oncology social worker at Exeter Hospital in Exeter, N.H., says that journaling gives her patients the opportunity to nurture themselves. Though they write as a group, they don't have to share their writing, Carlo says. "Just having that unspoken support and encouragement gives them courage to write about their feelings."

Among the topics Carlo suggests the group write about are the people who have touched them most in their life, and the peaks and valleys they have experienced throughout their life. The objective, she says, is to give the patients a better sense of where they've been, where they are, and where they're going.

One difference between traditional journaling and Carlo's program is that she has the participants envision that they're in a medieval castle. This transports them to another time and place, allowing them to distance themselves from their life. "It takes them out of the context of everyday chaos," says Carlo.

You don't need a therapist or a group to keep a journal. If you'd like to try it on your own, Gruman suggests one or both of these strategies:

Sit in a comfortable chair, take a deep breath, and start writing. Keep it up for 20 minutes without stopping. See what comes out. "If you are having trouble putting your finger on what's bothering you," says Gruman, "this may help you narrow the field."

Another journaling tip, Gruman says, is to focus a 20-minute writing session on a problem or concern that keeps coming back to your mind over and over. Write down, in detail, what it is about this problem that worries or angers you. Predict three different scenarios for what might happen next. Which one do you like best and why? What role might you play in making each scenario come to pass?

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