Journal Writing: Every Day for 33 Years…and Counting

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Since her 2009 diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, Dr. Lisa Doggett has come to realize MS is no excuse to avoid challenges. Instead, it has propelled her to run two marathons, hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, and complete a 168-mile bike ride to raise awareness for MS. She is currently working on a memoir about her journey from doctor to patient. 

January 1, 1985: “Went with Hannah to see her pony. Don’t want to go back to school.”

Those words launched my lifelong habit of journal writing at age 11. Since then, I have written every day, over 12,000 times. OK, so I have forgotten a few days, but just a few: five or six days in 33 years. (Hannah, by the way, is still a close friend!)

Writing in my journal is a natural, ingrained part of my day, like eating dinner or brushing my teeth. It helps me process the day’s events and feel a sense of closure. Here is a short Q&A I created about journaling. Also check out this article, A Total Beginner’s Guide to Keeping a Journal, if you need help getting started.

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1) Why is journaling helpful? Journaling helps us make sense of events in our lives and process difficult emotions and conflicts through creation of a personal narrative. It can feel like a release to write something down and then let go of it. At the same time – and almost paradoxically — daily journaling also helps preserve memories, giving the writer a written account of her life.

2) What are some life benefits of keeping a journal? I find journaling to be a stress reliever, allowing me to purge frustration. I also have gained a lot of personal insights, by tracking patterns in my life and my own response and behaviors. I think people who struggle with depression, anxiety, PTSD, insomnia, or chronic disease are particularly likely to benefit from regular journaling and may see a decrease in their symptoms and improvement in their mood and general well being.

Soon after I was diagnosed with MS eight-and-a-half years ago, I started to use my journal to track my symptoms and correlate them with my mood and sleep patterns. Journals can be very helpful for finding triggers for medical problems like migraines, abdominal pain, insomnia, and an array of other conditions.

I also love having a written memory of my life. I can go back in time when I can’t remember something and figure out what really happened. If I want to know how we celebrated a special occasion or where we went hiking on vacation 15 years ago, I can find out. I also have used my journals to write my memoir about my MS diagnosis, and they were critical to the process. Time seems so fleeting and elusive to me, and journaling helps me capture a small piece of it.

3) What are some recommended journaling techniques? Here are some tips from my personal experience:

– Write every day no matter what – or every week if daily journaling seems too intimidating. I usually write at the same time of day. (I prefer right before bed). If you’re tired or pressed for time, just write a sentence (like I did at age 11), but get something down to help solidify the habit and remember a little about that day (or week).

– Choose a writing method that is easy and convenient. Some people find it easier to type on a device, for example. Others write on a calendar or daily planner. I prefer to write by hand, and I love choosing beautiful blank books and filling the pages.

– Think about your purpose in writing, and that can guide your process. For me, I like to remember what I do every day, so sometimes my journal entries are a list of activities with minimal commentary. But at other times, I’ll use my journal to work through a challenging situation, sometimes with a stream-of-conscious approach. If I’m angry with someone, I might write them a letter in my journal – not to send it, but to help me get out what I want to say. If I experience something particularly joyful or exciting, I may take time to write more details so I can re-live the experience later.

– Keep it simple and don’t beat yourself up if you forget a day – or even a week. Just figure out some ways to remember to write in the future and realize that you don’t have to write a novel every day. Just a sentence or paragraph is great.

– Have realistic expectations. Journaling probably will not dramatically change your life, but if you are committed to doing it regularly and using it as a tool, you can learn a lot about yourself.

Thanks for reading – and I hope you’ll also start writing!

DR. LISA DOGGETT is working on a memoir about her journey from doctor to patient with multiple sclerosis. She is a family physician in Austin and co-founder of Texas Physicians for Social Responsibility, where she currently serves as vice-president. Since her 2009 diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, Dr. Doggett has recovered from the initial shock, realizing that MS is no excuse to avoid new challenges. Instead, it has propelled her to run two marathons, hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, and travel with her kids to China. She was named a finalist for the 2016 Writers' League of Texas Manuscript Contest. In the fall of 2017, she was selected as a finalist in the Yellow Bird Editors first page contest (memoir category). Dr. Doggett graduated from Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Texas School of Public Health. She completed her medical residency in family practice at the University of Cincinnati. Visit http://www.lisadoggett.com

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