Tuesday, September 21, 2004
People who keep diaries are more likely than non-diary-keepers to suffer from insomnia, headaches, social dysfunction and "generally feeling crappy," a British study shows.
The longer people keep diaries, the worse they feel. And worst of all are those who go back and re-read old entries.
The English and Scottish psychologists aren't sure whether stewing over problems is what makes people feel bad, or whether people who are depressed to start with are more likely to keep diaries.
Whatever the cause, they're fairly sure of one thing: Writing down our experiences is a lousy way to vent our feelings and feel better.
"It was pretty much bad news all across the board," says David Sheffield, a psychologist at Staffordshire University in northwestern England.
"Basically diary keepers were worse off than those people who didn't keep diaries, on most of these symptom measures."
That fact surprised him. The diary, he felt, should be a "cathartic" experience -- a way to release pent-up frustrations and emotions.
When he first wondered about people who keep diaries, he couldn't find any studies on the subject. So he and Elaine Duncan of Glasgow Caledonian University set off to peer inside the minds of 155 students. Of the group, 110 kept diaries -- or had done so at times -- and the rest never had.
The students were given questionnaires asking about both physical and mental symptoms. They didn't report any more physical ailments than the next person. But their emotional side is shaky.
"More anxiety. More sleeplessness. More social dysfunction symptoms -- basically not wanting to go out and sort of be sociable.
"The longer you kept a diary, the more symptoms you had," he said.
Why? The two psychologists don't know, and finding out is their next job.
For the moment they see three ways to read the data:
- People who write in diaries are stewing over their problems.
- The type of person who wants to keep a diary is "bleaker" to begin with. The diary is the result of this bleakness, not the cause of it.
- People who keep diaries are more likely to have lived through traumatic times. They've been hurt in some way and want to record it, or they're old and infirm, or lonely, and so they write.
For some people, such as British author Virginia Woolf, diaries are a compulsive or even pathological act. The writers can't stop, he said.
"It certainly doesn't make us think it's going to be cathartic and a cure," he said.
Elaine Duncan says she is a bit stunned -- and highly pleased -- at the reaction. Suddenly everyone wants to talk to her about diaries.
© The Vancouver Sun 2004