Journaling Your Way to a Healthier Heart
Diary. Journal. Notebook. At some point in our lives, it’s safe to say we’ve all had one. We wrote about crushes, how mad we were at our parents, and how that math test was just so unfair. Until recently, writing down our thoughts and feelings has been a bit of a lost art, even viewed as being juvenile. Instead of acknowledging our successes, worries, and fears by putting them down on paper, we have resolved to pushing them away or letting them build up. Or perhaps going to see a therapist a few times a month has become part of the routine. But what about simple everyday mental self-maintenance?
The American Heart Association recently published their 2019 update for heart disease and stroke statistics and the numbers are shocking. A whopping 103 million U.S. adults have high blood pressure. That’s nearly half of the adult population and these numbers keep climbing. In 2016, there were 82,735 deaths in the United States that were attributed to high blood pressure. That’s 1 death every 6 minutes!
As Americans, we are all so used to the grind. Early mornings, working through lunch, late night emails… they are all aspects of our reality. The rat race is real, and we are all guilty of participating. Our sights are set on the next victory, the better job, the bigger paycheck–constantly chasing, constantly trying to keep up. Let’s not forget about the other stuff: Kids, parents, significant others, siblings, pets… all the different facets of our worlds. Splitting our time and attention a million different ways has us feeling exhausted and STRESSED. Don’t get me wrong, there is such a thing as a healthy amount of stress. Stress can help to make us more productive. Sometimes we need a little fire under our butts! But excessive amounts of stress can lead to hypertension, which goes hand in hand with heart disease.
Yes, we can adopt a healthier diet, stop smoking, add in some exercise, maybe even start taking medication. But none of these changes affect the amount of stress we carry with us every day. A spike in stress results in a temporary rise in blood pressure and constant stress can compound this issue. However, according to the Mayo Clinic, increased blood pressure isn’t the only byproduct of stress that we need to keep an eye on. When we experience emotional destress, our bodies release cortisol as a way to protect us. Long term stress resulting in higher cortisol levels can lead to weakened arteries, increased cholesterol, increased triglycerides, raised blood sugar, and higher blood pressure. It is also not uncommon to find stress leading to a buildup of plaque deposits in the arteries.
A 2005 study conducted at Cambridge University found that individuals who write for 15-20 minutes, 3-5 times a week experienced fewer stress-related visits to the doctor, improved immune system functionality, a feeling of greater psychological well-being, and reduced blood pressure. No additional medications, no changes to diet or exercise. Just pen and paper.
So, take it into your own hands–literally. If writing seems intimidating to you, don’t let it! Keep it simple. Here are some ways to kick writer’s block to the curb:
- Make a list! Write down a few things you are grateful for, or tasks you want to accomplish, or goals you want to reach, even things you are afraid of. You will find yourself unintentionally expanding on your bullet points!
- Recount your day. If this seems like it might cramp up your hand, just try it. The significant moments of your day will stand out naturally.
- Draw a picture. Or a map. Or make a chart! Journaling is for you. There are no rules and there is no need to be formal.
- Make the time. Set aside 10-15 minutes for yourself at the end of your day to sit and write. If you keep the time consistent, you will be more likely to note moments throughout your day that you want to write about later!
Every single day, we find time to take care of ourselves. We make choices about the food we are putting in our bodies, we decide to take the stairs, we turn off the TV. But we live in a fast-paced world that does not stop moving. We have families, co-workers, friends, even enemies, and they all bring us different levels of stress. In order to cope with the stresses that are out of our control, we also need to find the time and the courage to confront whatever is adding tension to our minds. Too often, we push through without acknowledging how taxing our lives really are. English poet William Wordsworth said “Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart”. It’s about time we take his advice.
American Heart Association:https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/CIR.0000000000000659
URMC (University of Rochester Medical Center):https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentID=4552&ContentTypeID=1