Trauma

Does Writing about How You Feel Help Deal with Trauma?

Writing about thoughts and feelings can contribute to posttraumatic growth.

Posted Dec 03, 2019

Does writing about how you feel help deal with the effects of trauma? Previous research has shown that people who write about their thoughts and feelings after a stressful or traumatic event are more likely to experience posttraumatic growth.

In our study, we were interested in whether this remained the case even when administered via the internet. We hypothesized that individuals in an expressive writing group would experience a significantly greater increase in posttraumatic growth relative to individuals in a control writing group. It was also hypothesized that particular patterns of word use, would be meaningfully associated with study outcomes.

Participants were recruited from a pool of volunteers that had taken part in a previous online questionnaire study about adjustment following traumatic events. Participants were randomly allocated to one of two writing groups: an experimental disclosure group or a control writing group.

Briefly, participants in the disclosure condition were asked to write continuously for 15 minutes on three separate occasions over a week about the most traumatic or distressing experience of their life with as much emotion and feeling as possible. Participants were free to write about either the same or different experiences at each session.

Those assigned to the control writing condition were instructed to write continuously for 15 minutes on three separate occasions over a week about how they spent their time, without reference to their emotions or opinions and being completely objective.

They also completed self-report measures to assess their levels of posttraumatic stress and posttraumatic growth.

Overall, 24 participants completed all stages of the study; 10 control and 14 expressive writing participants. The results showed that writing about one’s thoughts and feelings can contribute to increases in the extent of posttraumatic growth reported from baseline to 8-week follow-up.

Specifically, results demonstrated that intrusive thoughts symptomatic of posttraumatic stress decreased and posttraumatic growth increased from baseline to 8-week follow-up in the expressive writing group. Further analyses of language use within the written essays suggested that greater use of insight words (e.g. understand, realize, thought) was associated with greater improvements in posttraumatic growth. The reason for this is thought to be because such word use reflects increased cognitive processing.

This study was one of the first to use an internet-based design to explore the impact of expressive writing on posttraumatic growth in survivors of traumatic life events. It may be that simply writing about thoughts and feelings on a regular basis can be helpful to people in making sense of their trauma-related experiences.

References

Stockton, H., Joseph, S., & Hunt, N. (2014). Expressive writing and posttraumatic growth: An Internet-based study. Traumatology: An International Journal, 20(2), 75.