It’s well established that talking about traumatic incidents with a therapist, supportive family or friends can be therapeutic, producing improvements in psychological and physical health. People who open up about traumatic events they have experienced have been found to benefit from a variety of health improvements, including improved mood, lower rates of infection, and lower blood pressure. And it has been established that not talking about traumatic experiences is associated with poorer health outcomes.
As helpful as talking about trauma maybe, it is often difficult for the victims to discuss it. Particularly difficult traumas, such as sexual abuse and rape—events which victims frequently perceive as shameful—make victims more vulnerable to poor health, including chronic diseases and headaches. Useful alternatives to talking about trauma are available.
Scientists have studied whether writing about trauma might be as effective as talking about it. Typically, this type of study asks trauma victims to participate in a structured writing task where they are encouraged to write about the thoughts and feelings associated with their trauma for about twenty minutes a day, three to five days a week. Several studies of this type have produced similar results, finding that written disclosure of emotional reactions to trauma leads to a wide variety of positive health consequences.
Scientists are unsure how this works. One possibility is that writing about traumatic experience serves as a stress release, decreasing the overall level of bodily stress that victims carry and thus reducing their vulnerability to diseases brought on due to chronic stress.
Evidence for the stress-reduction hypothesis was found in a study where participants were asked to view shocking films. Some participants were asked to suppress their emotional reaction to these films while others were given no such instruction. The group asked to suppress their reactions showed a significantly higher heart rate compared with the other group.
Related studies examining the immune system have found that greater life stress is associated with reduced immune function and susceptibility to infections. When people consciously hide emotions, they show noticeable immune effects, as shown experimentally by higher antibody levels after a vaccination. Expression of emotions, including written disclosure, has been shown many times to improve immune status.
Writing about trauma might also be helpful because it allows the victims to reprocess their experience from a safe place, enabling them to experience a type of mastery and control over their traumatic memories. The act of repetition, the conscious going over of trauma-related events and reactions to those events, also seems to reduce the intensity of trauma reactions.
Studies have shown that people who write even about imaginary traumas display significantly less depressed mood immediately afterward (compared to people who just imagined trauma but didn’t write about it), and subsequently reported fewer visits to their doctor.