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.
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.
Psychol Rep. 2015 Dec;117(3):856-82. doi: 10.2466/02.13.PR0.117c29z3. Epub 2015 Nov 23.
This study investigated whether an Expressive Writing intervention decreased depression and posttraumatic stress symptoms after childbirth. 113 women (M age = 31.26 yr., SD = 4.42) were assessed at Time 1 for depression (Beck Depression Inventory) and PTS (Perinatal PTSD Questionnaire) in the first days after childbirth, then randomized to either expressive writing or neutral writing conditions and reassessed at Time 2, 3 months later. The results (ANCOVAs, regression models) show that at 3 mo. depressive and posttraumatic symptoms were lower in women who performed the expressive writing task than in the neutral writing group. Moreover, the intervention condition was associated significantly with decreased depression at the high and at the mean levels of baseline depression at Time 1. Regarding PTSD, the results showed that the intervention condition was linked significantly to reductions of the symptoms at all levels of baseline PTSD. Mainly, these outcomes suggest that Expressive Writing can be a helpful early and low-cost universal intervention to prevent postpartum distress for women.
J Health Psychol. 2005 Mar;10(2):211-21.
This study examined the effects of expressive writing on depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and pain symptoms among women who have survived intimate partner violence (IPV). Forty-seven women completed baseline and four-month follow-up assessments and were randomly assigned to four writing sessions of either expressive writing focused on traumatic life events or writing about a neutral topic. Main effects were not significant for changes in depression, pain or PTSD symptoms. However, among depressed women, those assigned to expressive writing showed a significantly greater drop in depression. For depressed women with IPV histories, expressive writing may lead to reduced depression.