As a compulsive writer with journals stretching back to age 13, I’ve always been interested in research on how writing helps people cope.
There’s a lot of research on how journaling can help you feel better psychologically after a difficult event. But a set of studies, including one published today in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, present some contradictory findings. Taken together, they suggest that (if you do it right) journaling can improve heart health after a divorce — but it might still make you feel worse.
A few years ago, researchers invested whether journaling made people feel better psychologically after separation. Those results suggested that any kind of expressive journaling can make people feel worse if they’re the type of person prone to brooding. (Guilty.) Today’s study reanalyzed the same data and, instead of looking at psychological health, focused on physical indicators of heart health instead. (The authors of both studies are at the University of Arizona.)
The study included 109 people who had separated or divorced only a few months before the study started. There were three groups: one group wrote the details of their day and avoided emotional topics. The second wrote about their thoughts and feelings about the relationship and divorce. The third group also had to write about the divorce, but were turned it into a story. (These second two forms are called “expressive writing.”) Everyone had to write for 20 minutes a day for three consecutive days. The researchers gave everyone psychological and physiological tests before, immediately after, and eight months after.
From a psychological standpoint, both kinds of expressive writing might hurt people’s recovery if people just use the writing as a way to relive bad memories. This rings true in my own experience. Over the years, many of my entries are simply me reflecting on how I feel and spinning my wheels.
But the new study showed that people who wrote about divorce as a story later had a lower heart rate and higher heart rate variability (both markers of good health) than the other groups. And the positive effects were there regardless of whether people tended to be brooders.
There are the usual caveats to the study. First of all, it’s small, and the results are correlational. Second, people only journaled for an hour over three days, so the intervention was very short.
Still, the tension between the two studies, about how people’s heart health was better even if they didn’t feel better, is interesting. And there’s been a lot of research in the field of expressive writing, much of it done by the psychologist James Pennebaker at the University of Texas-Austin.
Expressive writing is supposed to help because creating a story adds meaning to a painful event. Social psychologists have shown again and again that life narratives are essential and constructing them can have big effects on us. One study showed that writing in a narrative structure helps more than just writing down the same thoughts in a list. In another study of about 50 people writing over time, people started writing about themes related to power and strength before they actually started to feel powerful and better. So it’s worth using this as a technique to deal with a bad event; just be careful if you’re on the anxious side.