Something to write home about: Journaling can help after trauma

August 19, 2002

Keeping a journal of one's feelings about a traumatic experience, as well as the effort to mentally process that experience, can help people effectively work through it, according to a new study.

However, writing only about one's emotions does not generate similar benefits, and may even make things worse, shows the study published in the August issue of the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

"Engagement of both thoughts and emotions while journaling about a stressful or traumatic experience can raise awareness of the benefits of the event," say Philip M. Ullrich and Susan K. Lutgendorf, Ph.D., of the University of Iowa. "In contrast, focusing solely on the emotional aspects of traumas may not produce a greater understanding of traumatic events."

The study included 122 college students who wrote in their journals at least twice a week for four weeks. The students received course credit for their participation.

The emotions-only group was instructed to write about their "deepest feelings" about a traumatic or stressful event. The emotions and cognition group wrote about their feelings as well as their attempts to understand and make sense of the traumatic event. A control group was directed to write down the details of traumatic events reported in the news.

The group writing about their emotions and cognition became more aware of benefits following the traumatic event, such as improved relationships, greater personal strength, spiritual development and a greater appreciation for life. The other journaling groups did not experience greater awareness of such benefits.

"Emotional expression or the passage of time alone does not seem to facilitate positive growth from a traumatic event," the researchers say. In fact, emotional expression alone may have harmful effects.

People who wrote down only their feelings progressively recorded more negative emotional words over the course of the study, a trend not seen in the other groups. The emotion-only students also reported a worsening of their physical health, equivalent to a mild cold becoming a severe cold. During the aftermath of a traumatic event people are may have the impression that the world is unsafe, unpredictable and out of their control. Journaling about thoughts and feelings surrounding the events may help people reorganize their perspectives on the works and their selves, the researchers explain. It is plausible that "carefully and thoughtfully expressing trauma-related emotions in a safe environment may enhance feelings of control and mastery over the traumatic event." Another explanation, Lutgendorf says, is that people become desensitized to the emotions associated with trauma after having an opportunity to express them in a structured and thoughtful manner.
The study was funded internally by the University of Iowa.

Health Behavior News Service: (202) 387-2829 or
Interviews: Contact Phillip Ullrich, (425) 221-2251 or
Annals of Behavioral Medicine: Contact Robert Ka

Center for Advancing Health

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