Ann Behav Med. 2008 Aug;36(1):21-32. doi: 10.1007/s12160-008-9046-7. Epub 2008 Aug 12.
Behavioral medicine interventions that directly reduce arousal and negative emotions, such as relaxation training (RT), are conceptually different from interventions that temporarily increase negative emotions, such as written emotional disclosure (WED), but no studies have directly compared their efficacy. We compared the effects of RT and WED on people with tension or migraine headaches.
College students with either tension (n = 51) or migraine (n = 90) headaches were randomized to one of three groups: RT, WED, or a neutral writing control condition; four sessions were held over 2 weeks. Mood was measured before and after each session, and outcomes (headache frequency, severity, disability, and general physical symptoms) were assessed at baseline and at 1-month and 3-month follow-ups.
As expected, RT led to an immediate increase in calmness, whereas WED led to an immediate increase in negative mood, for both headache samples. Intent-to-treat analyses showed that, for the tension headache sample, RT led to improved headache frequency and disability compared to both WED and the control group, but WED had no effect. For migraine headaches, RT improved pain severity relative to the control group, but WED again had no effect.
A brief RT protocol was effective for tension headaches, but WED had no effect on health status for either tension or migraine headaches. Modifications to WED, such as targeting people with unresolved stress, providing guidance to enhance the potency of the writing, or including additional at-home writing and exposure exercises, may improve its efficacy for people with headaches and other health problems.