Effects of writing about emotions versus goals on psychological and physical health among third-year medical students.

J Pers. 2006 Feb;74(1):267-86.

Austenfeld JL1, Paolo AM, Stanton AL.

A randomized, controlled trial compared writing about emotional topics (EMO) to writing about goals as the “best possible self” (BPS; after King, 2001) and evaluated emotional approach coping, i.e., efforts to cope through processing and expressing emotion, as a moderator of writing effects on psychological and physical health in 64 third-year medical students. In participants with higher baseline hostility, the EMO condition was associated with less hostility at 3 months compared to the BPS and control conditions. Emotional processing (EP) and emotional expression (EE) moderated the effect of experimental condition on depressive symptoms at 3 months; high EP/EE participants reported fewer depressive symptoms in the EMO condition, whereas low EP/EE individuals reported fewer depressive symptoms in the BPS condition compared to the EMO and control conditions. A moderating effect of EP on physical health was also identified, such that low EP individuals who wrote about goals (BPS) had fewer health care visits at 3 months compared to low EP participants in the EMO and control conditions.


Expressive writing, self-criticism, and self-reassurance.

Psychol Psychother. 2013 Dec;86(4):374-86. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8341.2012.02065.x. Epub 2012 Apr 17.

Troop NA1, Chilcot J, Hutchings L, Varnaite G.

Self-criticism and reassurance are important mechanisms for regulating negative emotions but relatively little attention has been paid to interventions aimed at improving them.


This study explored the use of an expressive writing task to increase self-reassurance and reduce self-criticism using a randomized controlled design.


A total of 46 participants wrote either about life goals (the expressive writing task, n= 23) or a control topic (a review of a recent book or film, n= 23) for 15 min, three times within an hour. Measures of self-criticism/self-reassurance, stress, and positive affect were completed at baseline and at 2-week follow-up. The Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) was used to analyse the writing of participants in the ‘life goals’ condition to identify psychological processes that might differentiate those who improved and those who did not.


While there were no significant changes in self-reported stress or positive affect, participants writing about life goals decreased in their levels of self-criticism at 2-week follow-up relative to participants writing about control topics. Text analysis showed that experimental participants using words that imply the possibility of doubt or failure, including use of the subjunctive tense (e.g., could, would, should), were least likely to decrease their self-criticism. CONCLUSION. Expressive writing shows promise as a means by which people may decrease in their self-criticism. Future research should determine whether such experimentally induced changes in self-criticism lead to the improvements in psychological health that is implied by previous cross-sectional research.


Writing about life goals vs writing about trauma

King continued her exploration of writing about self-regulatory topics with a 2001 study comparing the health benefits of writing about trauma with writing about life goals. Her findings: Results indicate that writing about life goals is another way to enjoy the health benefits of writing without the emotional costs. Indeed, writing about one’s life goals was associated with feeling less upset, more happy, and getting sick less often. . . . [T]he physical benefits . . . were equal to or better than writing about trauma, whereas writing about a traumatic life event also entailed feeling upset and experiencing lowered mood. . . . It may be possible to enjoy the benefits of writing without necessarily writing about trauma at all (805).

(p. 29).

From “Your Brain on Ink”