Benefits of Expressive Writing Seen More Clearly With Language Analysis Software

Paula Moyer, MA

August 23, 2005

Aug. 23, 2005 (Washington) -- The benefits of emotionally expressive writing assignments depend on the context of the assignment, according to researcher Louise Sundararajan, PhD, EdD, who presented her findings here at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association.

Examples of such assignments are those in which the subjects are coached to give full vent to their emotions when they write about an assigned subject, typically one known to be emotionally provocative, such as a childhood trauma, and those in which the subjects are told only to stick to facts regarding an emotionally neutral subject, such as one's weekly schedule. However, whether subjects experience emotions during the assignment depends on how they are primed beforehand, said Dr. Sundararajan, who is a forensic psychologist at the Rochester Psychiatric Center in New York.

As physicians know, patients with a variety of chronic illnesses may be encouraged to keep journals or engage in other types of writing activities to decompress negative emotions and resolve their negative feelings about the illness. Dr. Sundararajan and her coinvestigator found that emotional arousal may be present in apparently neutral assignments.

The researchers developed a language analysis software program, the Sundararajan-Schubert Word Count (SSWC), and reanalyzed data from an earlier study about whether the content of a writing assignment would reap health benefits. The first study had shown that the content was not relevant.

"Our findings shed light on the context of language use," Dr. Sundararajan told Medscape in an interview. "Research on the interaction between processing strategies and language use will help us know what to tell patients to facilitate expressive writing. The more you know about context, the more you know how to help people to write about emotions in a productive manner."

In their current research, the investigators reanalyzed data from a prior study, in which 86 college undergraduates whose parents were divorced were recruited and randomly assigned to a control or experimental group. The two groups had different writing assignments but the same pre- and postwriting interviews, which asked probing questions about their parents' divorce. During the interviews, the subjects' heart rates, skin conductance, and blood oxygen levels were measured. At the beginning and end of each interview, the subject took a working memory test; afterward, they responded to a symptom checklist. In the writing phase, 30 minutes on two occasions, the control group was instructed to write about time management. Both groups also completed self-reports regarding their psychological and physical health, and the investigators obtained data regarding the subjects' use of the campus health center.

In the original work the investigators found that both sets of students reaped health improvements after the writing exercise: both groups showed less stress, improved working memory, and fewer psychological symptoms.

In the current research, the investigators used SSWC and reanalyzed the texts of the writing assignments and the interviews. The results showed that the groups seemed were similarly aroused during the assignments and produced texts of comparable length. However, the experimental group used more emotionally expressive categories as well as emotionally distancing categories than the control group, whose writing was emotionally expressive in a different way: the controls wrote more about bodily sensations and the self, topics that intruded despite the subject of the writing assignment. Therefore, despite the seeming difference in the apparent emotionality or lack of it in the writing assignments, both groups were primed to process emotions, and the language program detected it, Dr. Sundararajan said.

The findings will help healthcare professionals who encourage patients to write about their experiences to do so in a more productive manner, she added. "Expressing emotions will reap the most health benefit if the person is coached to be deliberate, expressive, and explicit about the emotions," Dr. Sundararajan said. "The more you spell out, the more deliberate you are, the more explicitly you're processing the emotions, the more you neutralize the stress response. This strategy encourages controlled processing."

APA Annual Convention: Session 2347. Presented Aug. 19, 2005.

Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD