Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Trauma and the Benefits of Writing About It

Why it helps to write about negative events.

Psychological trauma is bad for your health. The stress of abuse, violence, or the unexpected death of a loved one can cause all sorts of health problems. People suffering after these events may stop working effectively in school or at their jobs. They may lash out at friends, family, and coworkers. They may experience significant illnesses as stress depresses their immune systems.

Why does psychological trauma have these long-lasting effects?

One reason for the stress of psychological trauma is that our representations of these traumatic events are fragmented. Psychologically traumatic events are ones that have no good explanation. The sudden death of a loved one may seem senseless. Abuse you suffer is a betrayal of a sacred trust. You have painful facts with no story to bind them together.

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Because these memories and events are painful, our natural tendency is to avoid thinking about them. We suppress thoughts about these negative events and hope they will go away. But, they don't.

Car accidentThe mind is most settled when there is coherence to our thoughts. We seek to resolve conflicting thoughts by remembering them and processing them. So, a dangerous cycle can develop with traumatic events. Because they are fragmented, there are constant reminders of them. But, because they are painful, we do not process them deeply. And so, we suffer the stress of remembering a painful situation without resolving the incoherence.

Research by my colleague Jamie Pennebaker and his colleagues suggests that one of the best therapies for this kind of psychological trauma is also one of the simplest: writing. He describes this procedure in a 1997 paper in Psychological Science. People are asked to spend three consecutive days writing about one or more traumatic events. They are encouraged to really explore the thoughts and emotions surrounding the event, and to tie it to relationships with significant others. In studies of this technique, people doing this writing are compared to others who write about unemotional topics like time management.

As you might expect, writing about these emotional events was very difficult for people. They did not enjoy the experience, and they found it painful. However, the long-term effects of this writing were fascinating. If you followed the people in these studies over time, they reported fewer illnesses, they went to the doctor less often, and they suffered fewer symptoms of depression in the future. They were less likely to miss work and school, and their performance at work went up. These effects lasted for months and years after writing.

What is particularly interesting about this procedure is that it is just an effect of writing about these events. The people doing the writing do not have to believe that anyone will ever read what they wrote. So, the benefit of writing is not in disclosing this personal information to someone else. The benefit is in creating a story that links together the emotional memories. Making these traumatic events more coherent makes memories of these events less likely to be repeatedly called to mind, and so they can be laid to rest.

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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