The brain’s emotion processing system is briefly discussed as a model for understanding the emotional benefits of expressive writing. The act of writing integrates both brain functioning and subjective experience.
J Pers Soc Psychol. 1996 Sep;71(3):588-602.
Health benefits derived from personal trauma disclosure are well established. This study examined whether disclosing emotions generated by imaginative immersion in a novel traumatic event would similarly enhance health and adjustment. College women, preselected for trauma presence, were randomly assigned to write about real traumas, imaginary traumas, or trivial events. Yoked real-trauma and imaginary-trauma participants wrote about real-trauma participants’ experiences. Imaginary-trauma participants were significantly less depressed than real-trauma participants at immediate posttest, but they were similarly angry, fearful, and happy. Compared with control group participants, both trauma groups made significantly fewer illness visits at 1-month follow-up; however, real-trauma participants reported more fatigue and avoidance than did the other groups. Imaginary-trauma group effects could reflect catharsis, emotional regulation, or construction of resilient possible selves.
Psychother Psychosom Med Psychol. 2013 Sep;63(9-10):391-7. doi: 10.1055/s-0033-1349078. Epub 2013 Oct 11.
The (written) disclosure of information, thoughts and emotions of individually significant tops is associated with positive effects on well-being and the psychological health. The applicability of expressive writing as a psychotherapeutic intervention for stress reactions after stressful/traumatic life events were also intensely discussed in the clinical context. However, structural and content-related variation of the initial writing paradigm resulted in significantly different effects on general psychological health and posttraumatic stress symptoms.This overview provides current findings to application and efficacy of expressive writing respectively writing therapy for posttraumatic stress disorder. Mechanisms of expressive writing (inhibition, habituation, construction of a coherent narrative, emotion regulation, social integration) are analyzed with regard to their relevance concerning PTSD. Finally, potentials for application in the clinical practice are discussed.
J Gen Intern Med. 2010 Oct;25(10):1064-70. doi: 10.1007/s11606-010-1418-6. Epub 2010 Jun 8.
Affect and how it is regulated plays a role in pain perception, maintenance of pain, and its resolution. This randomized, controlled trial evaluated an innovative affective self-awareness (ASA) intervention, which was designed to reduce pain and improve functioning in individuals with fibromyalgia.
Forty-five women with fibromyalgia were randomized to a manualized ASA intervention (n = 24) or wait-list control (n = 21). The intervention began with a one-time physician consultation, followed by 3 weekly, 2-h group sessions based upon a mind-body model of pain. Sessions focused on structured written emotional disclosure and emotional awareness exercises. Outcomes in both conditions were measured by a blinded assessor at baseline, post-intervention, and 6-month follow-up.
The primary outcome was pain severity (Brief Pain Inventory); secondary outcomes included tender-point threshold and physical function (SF-36 Physical Component Summary). Intent-to-treat analyses compared groups on outcomes using analysis of covariance and on the proportion of patients achieving ≥ 30% and ≥ 50% pain reduction at 6 months.
Adjusting for baseline scores, the intervention group had significantly lower pain severity (p < 0.001), higher self-reported physical function (p < 0.001), and higher tender-point threshold (p = 0.02) at 6 months compared to the control group. From baseline to 6 months, 45.8% of the ASA intervention group had ≥ 30% reduction in pain severity, compared to none of the controls (p < 0.001).
The affective self-awareness intervention improved pain, tenderness, and self-reported physical function for at least 6 months in women with fibromyalgia compared to wait-list control. This study suggests the value of interventions targeting emotional processes in fibromyalgia, although further studies should evaluate the efficacy of this intervention relative to active controls.
Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2017 Sep 1;12(9):1437-1447. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsx084.
Affect labeling (putting feelings into words) is a form of incidental emotion regulation that could underpin some benefits of expressive writing (i.e. writing about negative experiences). Here, we show that neural responses during affect labeling predicted changes in psychological and physical well-being outcome measures 3 months later. Furthermore, neural activity of specific frontal regions and amygdala predicted those outcomes as a function of expressive writing. Using supervised learning (support vector machines regression), improvements in four measures of psychological and physical health (physical symptoms, depression, anxiety and life satisfaction) after an expressive writing intervention were predicted with an average of 0.85% prediction error [root mean square error (RMSE) %]. The predictions were significantly more accurate with machine learning than with the conventional generalized linear model method (average RMSE: 1.3%). Consistent with affect labeling research, right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (RVLPFC) and amygdalae were top predictors of improvement in the four outcomes. Moreover, RVLPFC and left amygdala predicted benefits due to expressive writing in satisfaction with life and depression outcome measures, respectively. This study demonstrates the substantial merit of supervised machine learning for real-world outcome prediction in social and affective neuroscience.
Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2009 Mar;35(3):351-64. doi: 10.1177/0146167208328165.
Two studies examined the hypothesis that relative to control motivation, autonomy motivation is associated with effective written expression and regulation, leading to positive emotional, physical, and cognitive outcomes over time. Participants viewed a Hiroshima-Nagasaki documentary in each of two sessions. Study 1 showed that dispositionally autonomous participants, particularly those who expressed, had positive well-being, energy, and memory after the second viewing. Study 2 explored benefits of situational motivation by priming autonomy and control. Results showed that dispositionally controlled individuals received the same benefits as autonomous individuals only when primed with autonomy and encouraged to express. Coding of writing content revealed that the benefits of autonomy were mediated by nondefensive and effective emotional processing, as reflected in greater use of self-referencing and cognitive mechanism words and lower use of concrete words. Results support the expectation that autonomy relates to effective expression and emotion regulation, leading to positive functioning over time.
Perm J. 2013 Winter;17(1):16-20. doi: 10.7812/TPP/12-056.
In previous studies, writing about traumatic life events produced positive physical and psychological outcomes in various populations. Specific linguistic trends, such as increasing insight and cognitive words, have paralleled health benefits.
This study explored the effects of written traumatic emotional disclosure on eating disorder behavior and cognitions as well as linguistic dimensions of the disclosure writings completed by eating-disordered patients.
Twenty-nine female patients, aged 16 to 39 years, from the Penn State Hershey Eating Disorders partial-hospitalization program participated. Twenty-five subjects completed a traumatic disclosure or control writing task, and 21 completed all writings and baseline and follow-up questionnaires to assess eating-disorder symptoms, emotional regulation strategies, self-efficacy, and motivation to change eating-disorder behaviors. The handwritten essays were transcribed into a word-processed document and analyzed on numerous dimensions using the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count software.
Individuals completing the disclosure writing did not differ from those in the control task group on any of the questionnaires at follow-up. However, the disclosure group did use more negative emotion, insight, cognitive, function, and filler words on all writing days along with decrease of tentative words. These changes in word use correlated with previous study findings.
Whereas the expected linguistic trends were evident in the disclosure group writings, no correlating health benefits could be found between the disclosure and control groups. Eating-disordered populations, often alexithymic, may have difficulty engaging with the disclosure task and could potentially benefit from guidance in processing traumatic events and their affective states.