New research extends understanding of the positive health effects of expressive writing

August 19, 2005

WASHINGTON -- Researchers have known for some time that expressive writing can have a positive effect on the writer's health, such as illness recovery. Now, in the next generation of research, Psychologist Louise Sundararajan, PhD, EdD, of the Forensic Unit of the Rochester Psychiatric Center, and Jeffrey A. Richards, MA, of University of Colorado at Boulder, have shown that the effects of affective expressions are not necessarily fixed but rather dependent on the writer's mental context at the time.

This study consists of two parts: the original study and a reanalysis of data. The original study was conducted by Dr. Anna Graybeal, who recruited 86 college undergraduates whose parents were divorced and randomly assigned them to a control or experimental group. The control group was instructed to write on two occasions, 30 minutes each, about time management. The experimental group was asked to also write for a total of 60 minutes but about their thoughts and feeling about their parents' divorce. For both groups, pre-and post-writing interviews about stressful experiences of the divorce were conducted to assess the participants' reactivity to provoked stress. To measure health improvements a comprehensive battery of tests were used, including measures of physiological arousal (such as heart rate, skin conductance, and blood oxygen level), self reports of emotional upset (such as questionnaires and mood scales), measures of physical and psychological health (using health center data, self reports of illness, and symptom checklist), and measure of cognition (working memory tests).

The original study hypothesized that those students given the expressive writing assignment - to write about their thoughts and feelings about their parent's divorce - would reap health improvements while those asked to write about a non-affective subject, time management, would not.

The hypothesis proved wrong and a puzzle emerged. Results showed that both sets of students reaped health improvements after the writing exercise--they were less distressed, improved their mean performance on the working memory task, and exhibited fewer psychological symptoms. The authors rightly speculated that the post-writing improvement of the control group was attributable to the pre-writing interview, which prompted all participants to process issues concerning their parents' divorce. Thus both writing groups had in effect been primed to process their emotions--the experimental group explicitly, and the control group implicitly.

The texts of both the writing assignments and the in-person interviews were then reanalyzed using the SSWC (the Sundararajan-Schubert Word Count program), a language analysis program developed by Dr. Sundrarajan and her colleague Lenhart Schubert, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Rochester. This computer program works by pattern matching which allows it to process syntax, parts of speech, and negation, and to count occurrences of words and phrases in a dictionary of close to 2000 entries. Secondly, it identifies 15 categories of language use as indexes of different information processing strategies, such as "emotion immersion", "emotion distancing", "focus on affect", "high self focus", etc.

The results of the language analysis showed that both the experimental and control groups seemed to be similarly aroused, and produced texts of comparable length. Other than that, the two groups differed on practically all of the 15 categories of language use. The experimental group used more emotionally expressive categories as well as emotion distancing categories, and produced a higher percentage of the sum total of categories used than the control group, who in contrast were more relaxed, wrote more about bodily sensations (such as "tiredness") and the self.

A few information-processing strategies showed the same effects across writing conditions, for instance, emotion distancing strategies were found to be beneficial, and high self focus detrimental, for both groups. But, most strategies of emotion expression were beneficial--or not, depending on the demand characteristics of the writing condition. Thus with the experimental group who were encouraged to express their emotions, deliberate processing of emotions was found to be conducive to post-writing improvement. For the control group, however, who wrote about time management, non-conscious processing of emotions was found to be beneficial.

These results show that the effects of affective expressions are not fixed, but rather are dependent on the writer's mental context at the time," says lead researcher Dr. Sundararajan. "This study suggests a new direction for research on expressive writing. The research question needs to shift from whether to how. We can now look at the health benefits of different types of language use in combination with different contexts of writing to learn more about the link between language use and health."
Presentation: "Eavesdropping on Health: Innovative Approaches to Language and Emotion", Louise Sundararajan, PhD, Rochester Psychiatric Center, Session 2347, 4:00 - 5:50 PM, Friday, August 19, 2005, Washington Convention Center, Room 146C. Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office

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The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 150,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting health, education and human welfare.

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