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You, Your Diary and Oxytocin

In 2008, researchers found that people who had spent time writing about their core values were less defensive and more open to hearing information about health -- maybe because the activity releases oxytocin. And James Pennebaker of the University of Texas found that journaling improves the immune system. Because oxytocin promotes healing and balance, this is another clue that writing in a journal may boost your oxytocin.

Mari_mccarthy_writer Mari L. McCarthy is a writing therapist. She helps people develop their personal journaling practice in order to improve their spiritual, psychological and physical health. (You can find out more about this multitalented woman at CreateWriteNow.) We chatted on the phone about how keeping a journal can help you transform your health and your outlook. I think that there's strong evidence that keeping a diary or journal can also boost your everyday oxytocin levels.

HUG: So studies showed that journaling can increase people's positive behaviors and maybe their oxytocin levels. I guess that's not news to you?

MARI: I find it's making me more and more positive. The more journaling you do, the more negative you get out of it, and you get to the good stuff. You find we're basically good, happy people at the core.

HUG: Are you surprised science is affirming this?

MARI: No. Science is now looking at the whole person, the mind in context of the body. I'm excited that, in bits and pieces, they're starting to see there's some truth to that.

HUG: I'm fine with intuitive and pragmatic, but I love that we now have ammunition for the people who are so into scientific proof. Tell me what you mean by journaling.

MARI: I call it journaling for the health of it: getting yourself into a routine or practice of having a journal and preferably daily jotting down your thoughts, feelings or whatever. The key is to do it on a routine basis, so there's some structure to it. You don't have to do x number of pages; it's whatever you feel like doing.

HUG: Is the importance of doing it regularly that you form a habit, or does it somehow deepen the process every time you go back to it?

MARI: Yes, and yes. It becomes a habit and you reinforce your commitment to yourself. It also gets you further and further and further into yourself. It's fascinating how much there is to us. It's amazing to realize there's a whole universe inside ourselves.

HUG: One aspect is writing, getting stuff out. And another part is reflecting on what you've written?

MARI: Definitely. By getting all the stuff out and on the page, it opens up other pathways or channels, so it helps you in your daily life.

HUG: Do you recommend people start writing whatever comes out, or should we have a goal or topic?

MARI: My suggestion is to do free writing. No thinking, just put the pen on the page and write about wherever you're at. Don't pay attention to topic sentences or whatever, just get it all out. As you get into the process, a word might stick in your head, or a situation that upset or angered you. You might ask the page a question or start out, "I'm so aggravated with my boss because …" If you don't feel like writing, put that down.

HUG: you've given us some hints about how to get started. Do you have any tips for those of us who just stare at the blank page?

MARI: Have a discussion with your journal. Pretend you're talking to your therapist and have a conversation on paper. Realize that when you're staring at the blank page, we have inner critics and old baggage that makes us very comfortable with not doing something for ourselves. There may be old messages we've ingested that it's selfish, or we don't have any feelings. We need to realize that we created those things to protect ourselves, but the wires got crossed. We've moved forward through our lives with those old thought patterns. There are all sorts of things in our subconscious we're not privy to yet, until we get into the journaling process. So it's not unusual at all for our inner critics to have a real hold on us and prevent us from getting to the page.

In the journaling process you'll experience physical and emotional pains. We're not a mind and a body, we're all together. So when we have disease or physical manifestations, it has a great deal to do with our thought processes. Journaling helps us get through it and understand the stress we've been carrying around.

If you're feeling blocked, Mari has more tips for you on her blog. You might want to start with her article, 6 Therapeutic Journaling Tricks and Treats.