Expressive writing is a therapeutic intervention requiring individuals to write about distressing events and their emotional responses to these experiences (Pennebaker & Beall, 1986). The use of expressive writing has improved behavioural, physiological, and psychological outcomes in many populations, including individuals with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD; Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005). Greater self-disclosure on such writing tasks has been associated with higher perceived benefits and helpfulness (Brewin & Lennard, 1999). Researchers have investigated how expressive writing protocols can be utilized online to increase levels of self-disclosure when writing about traumatic experiences and, consequently, improve PTSD symptom outcomes. Researchers have not yet assessed for modality-based differences (e.g., typed vs. hand-written expressive writing) for therapeutic efficacy or emotional engagement. The present investigation examined whether 1) typed and hand-written expressive writing equally reduced PTSD symptoms; and 2) emotional engagement affected the efficacy of expressive writing in reducing PTSD symptoms. A community and student sample (n = 29) with clinically significant PTSD symptoms completed the trial. Participants were randomized to one of four conditions with different writing modalities (i.e., typed or hand-written) and paradigms (i.e., control or expressive writing). In one session, participants were administered three 15-minute writing tasks and self-report questionnaires evaluating aspects of emotion (i.e., recognition, expression, trait negative emotionality) and PTSD symptom severity. An optional 7-day follow-up questionnaire re-evaluating PTSD symptom severity was also administered to participants. Each experimental group had non-significant decreases in PTSD symptoms from pre- to post-intervention, these
changes being dependant on pre-intervention symptom severity; however, alexithymia, i
dissociation (i.e., attentional dissociation and dissociative amnesia), negative affect, emotional approach coping, and the presence of a learning disability did affect symptom changes, and when these factors were considered the experimental conditions significantly differed in their effect on symptom outcomes. In conclusion, findings of the current trial suggest that a day-intensive session of expressive writing neither reduces PTSD symptoms nor differs in efficacy based on its method of completion unless emotional engagement with the task is considered. Further investigation into how learning disabilities and emotional predispositions affect engagement with expressive writing is warranted to clarify its efficacy in clinical PTSD populations.
Health Psychol. 2012 Sep;31(5):548-51. doi: 10.1037/a0026834. Epub 2012 Jan 9.
Little attention has been focused on Asian American breast cancer survivor’s psychological needs. No outcome-based psychosocial interventions have been reported to target at this population. Expressive writing interventions have been previously shown to improve health outcomes among non-Hispanic White breast cancer populations. This pilot study aimed to test the cultural sensitivity, feasibility, and potential health benefits of an expressive writing intervention among Chinese-speaking breast cancer survivors.
Participants (N = 19) were asked to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings, their coping efforts, and positive thoughts and feelings regarding their experience with breast cancer each week for 3 weeks. Health outcomes were assessed at baseline, 3, and 6 months after the intervention. A Community-Based Participatory Research Approach (CBPR) is used.
Expressive writing was associated with medium and large effect sizes (η(p)² = 0.066∼0.208) in improving multiple health outcomes (quality of life, fatigue, posttraumatic stress, intrusive thoughts, and positive affect) at follow-ups. Participants perceived the study to be valuable. The study yielded high compliance and completion rates.
Expressive writing is associated with long-term improvement of health outcomes among Chinese breast cancer survivors and has the potential to be utilized as a support strategy for minority cancer survivors. In addition, CBPR is valuable in improving feasibility and cultural sensitivity of the intervention in understudied populations. Future studies employing randomized, controlled trial designs are warranted.
J Fam Nurs. 2007 Aug;13(3):370-84.
This study examines whether structured writing about receiving a diagnosis and treatment for pediatric cancer reduces distress among highly distressed parents of children with cancer (PCWC). Eight PCWC completed measures of posttraumatic stress symptoms (PTSS) and depressive symptoms at two baselines, and again after writing, with 1-month gaps between assessments. Using a guided disclosure protocol (GDP), parents were asked to write about receiving the diagnosis first in a chronological manner, then to explicitly label their emotions at the time of diagnosis and explain the impact of the child’s illness on their life. Finally, they were asked to reflect on current feelings, future coping ability, and personal growth. Although symptoms of distress did not change between baselines, significant reductions were found in PTSS from the first baseline to postwriting, but not in depression. This preliminary study suggests that the GDP may reduce PTSS in distressed PCWC.
Violence Vict. 2003 Oct;18(5):569-80.
To see if writing about their trauma lessened PTSD and related symptoms, 57 undergraduates, previously screened for traumatic experiences, wrote for 15 minutes on 4 days across 2 weeks about either their trauma or a trivial topic. They reported PTSD, impact, suicide ideas, dissociation, and depression pre-, post-, and at 6-week follow-up testing. Trauma and trivial writers were not different. Surprisingly, at follow-up everyone reported less severe PTSD symptoms, impact, and dissociation, and fewer health visits, but about the same suicidal ideation and depression. On PTSD symptoms and impact, the pattern of improvement was different: Those writing about trauma got worse at posttesting, but improved to better than their initial state by follow-up. Those writing about a trivial topic got better by posttesting, and held that position at follow-up. In this project, writing seemed to reduce PTSD symptoms regardless of whether it concerned the trauma or what they ate for lunch.
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.