Writing about Trauma Can Produce Health Benefits
Writing about trauma seems to be most effective when the traumatic event is intense. In a study of college students, those who wrote about more severe traumas reported fewer physical symptoms afterward, compared with persons who described lower-severity traumas.
Another important finding suggests that it may not be the act of writing itself which produces the healthy benefit, but rather its ability to help people achieve potent and emotional (and yet still distanced and safe) connections with their traumatic memories. This is illustrated in a study where researchers encouraged one group of trauma victims to write only factual information about their experience, while another group was asked to record both factual and emotional detail. In this study, greater degrees of personalization and detail were associated with less depression and less anxiety.
If writing about trauma produces so many health benefits in the lab, can it be recommended as a general approach for any trauma sufferer to undertake? Unfortunately not, as people vary in their ability to cope with traumatic events. By definition, exposure to traumatic events is overwhelming and outside the range of normal experience. If the nature of the trauma is extreme enough, forcing someone to write about it when they are not ready to do so can be re-traumatizing and can make things worse. For this reason, it is best done in the context of easily accessible social and emotional support.
Warnings aside, the usefulness of writing about trauma to promote healing is based on a substantial background of evidence. When performed with limits on time and subject matter, and by a person who is ready to undertake the task and who has support, the method is cheap, allows the trauma to be confronted at a suitable (self-directed) speed, lets personal meanings and solutions be derived, and may be undertaken by people who would not be likely to enter therapy.
Esterling, B. A. et al. Emotional repression, stress disclosure responses, and Epstein-Barr viral capsid antigen titers. Psychosomatic Medicine, Vol. 52, July 1990, pp. 397-410.
Foa, E. B. and Kozak, M. J. Emotional processing of fear: exposure to corrective information, Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 99, January 1986, pp. 20-35.
Golding, J. M. et al. Sexual assault history and use of health and mental health services. American Journal of Community Psychology, Vol. 16, October 1988, pp. 625-44.
Greenberg, M. A., Wortman, C. B. and Stone, A. A. Emotional expression and physical health: revising traumatic memories or fostering self-regulation? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 71, September 1996, pp. 588-602.
Greenberg, M. A. and Stone, A. A. Emotional disclosure about traumas and its relation to health: effects of previous disclosure and trauma severity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 63, July 1992, pp. 75-84.
Gross, J. J. and Levenson, R. W. Hiding feelings: The acute effects of inhibiting negative and positive emotion. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Vol. 106, February 1997, pp. 95-103.
Pennebaker, J. W., Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K. and Glaser, R. Disclosure of traumas and immune function: health implications for psychotherapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 56, April 1988, pp. 239-45.
Pennebaker, J. W. and Susman, J. R. Disclosure of traumas and psychosomatic processes. Social Science & Medicine, Vol. 26, February 1988, pp. 327-32.
Pennebaker, J.W. and Beall, S. K. Confronting a traumatic event: toward an understanding of inhibition and disease. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Vol. 95, August 1986, pp. 274-81.
Collingwood, J. (2015). Writing about Trauma Can Produce Health Benefits. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 3, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/writing-about-trauma-can-produce-health-benefits/