A research paper and guide to use writing therapy to relieve relationship stresses. Researched and written by Danielle Descarfino.
Introduction to writing therapy
In the 1970’s, expressive writing therapy was formed as a new approach to psychotherapy. One’s ability to deal with difficult thoughts and feelings appears to reduce the negative mental and physical health effects that result from stressful life events (Philips, 1977). It has been found that people who regularly engage in expressive writing have a reduced level of negative mood, enhanced immune functioning, and reduced self-reports of illness symptoms (Lepore & Greenberg, 2002). Pennebaker’s research (1989; as cited in Lepore & Smyth, 2002) shows that writing is a cathartic experience that has the power to improve your personal health as well as feelings and reactions about stressful, traumatic, or unresolved experiences. Engaging in expressive writing acts as a physiological release, reducing the tension caused by prolonged inhibition of your inner feelings. Expressive writing is a healthy way to improve relationships and cope with breakups. It allows you to confront your thoughts and emotions, resulting in an increased understanding of the situation and ability to communicate your feelings.
Writing therapy for breakups
The ending of an intimate relationship can be a stressful and traumatic experience, depending on the closeness, amount of interdependence, and importance of the relationship to your own identity (Brehm, Kassin, & Fein, 2005). Many studies have found benefits in using expressive writing therapy to deal with breakups. People who write about a recent breakup are more likely to reunite with their partner because it aids in understanding what went wrong and seeing their partner’s perspective (Slatcher & Pennebaker, 2006).
Lepore and Greenberg (2002) conducted a study to evaluate the impact of expressive writing on feelings toward a recent breakup of a romantic relationship, focusing on how writing affects cognitive processing and mood. They predicted that writing would facilitate social interaction, as well as improving negative mood and reducing tension and fatigue. They also predicted that some individuals would see their relationship problems more clearly and have more empathy for their ex-partner’s perspective. Participants were made up of college students who had gone through a breakup in the prior year. They were interviewed over the phone and given writing assignments about their past relationship. Results showed that expressive writing has a positive impact on mood, physical health, and social functioning (Lepore & Greenberg, 2002).
Writing therapy for healthy relationships
Expressive writing is also helpful in maintaining healthy relationships. Because writing allows you to confront your deepest emotions, it may lead you to sharing those feelings and forming a closer relationship. In addition, writing to one another can increase relationship functioning. For example, couples recovering from infidelity tend to experience a reduction in anger, depression, and marital distress when they write emotional letters to each other (Slatcher & Pennebaker, 2006).
Slatcher and Pennebaker (2006) studied the social effects of expressive writing to maintain and improve romantic relationships, with the assumption that confronting complex emotions can facilitate social interaction. In the study, couples talked through instant-messaging and their conversations were analyzed for natural language use. Use of positive and negative emotion words (e.g., happy, love, angry, nervous) were viewed as the underlying mechanisms that mediate the writing’s effects. Using emotion words reveals deep feelings, which can result in reflection in social interactions, and lead to the couple functioning at a higher emotional level (Slatcher & Pennebaker, 2006). The study predicted that couples who wrote about their relationships would still be together after three months and that increases in emotion words would move the couple’s communication to a higher level. Results showed that writing increased emotional expressiveness and improved relationship stability (Slatcher & Pennebaker, 2006).
Why does writing therapy work?
How writing affects psychological processes
Processes of emotional regulation
Self-regulation is the process by which people aim to control their thoughts, feelings, behavior, and urges in order to reduce troublesome discrepancies (Brehm et al., 2005). Emotional regulation describes the quality, frequency, intensity, or duration of responses to an emotional experience (Lepore & Smyth, 2002). It is important to be balanced between emotional overreaction and under-reaction (Lepore & Smyth, 2002).
Writing therapy may impact individuals differently, depending on their regulation style and outlook on life. Those who under-regulate emotions have intense negative emotions that are difficult to control. For under-regulators, stress can lead to health problems such as asthma, arthritis, and cardiovascular problems. Those who are over-regulated tend to avoid, inhibit, and suppress emotions. Their stress can result in problems with immune system functioning (Lepore & Smyth, 2002). Optimists and pessimists also deal with stress differently. Optimistic people are generally able to cope well and adapt to stressful situations. They have a tendency to expect positive outcomes in situations of uncertainty. Pessimistic people are characterized by helplessness, avoidance, and behavioral disengagement (Cameron & Nicholls, 1998). People who are optimistic are likely to use writing to explore conflicts, insight, and identify helpful coping strategies (Cameron & Nicholls, 1998). Expressive writing therapy helps to regulate your emotions in a healthy manner, as it affects each of the three regulatory processes involved in emotional regulation: attention, habituation, and cognitive restructuring (Lepore & Smyth, 2002).
Attention is the regulatory process that describes your recognition of emotional responses and the stressful stimuli (Lepore & Smyth, 2002). Ability to direct your attention to the problem is the first step in expressive writing, as it eliminates avoidance or excessive control over your emotions. Writing also causes you to focus on different aspects of the event, sources of stress, and your responses, leading to a wider outlook and new views towards your problem (Lepore & Smyth, 2002).
Habituation occurs when repeated stimulation to a stressor results in a decreased response (Lepore & Smyth, 2002). In this manner, expressive writing is a form of exposure therapy, as it gives you repeated contact with your negative thoughts (Lepore & Greenberg, 2002). By thinking and writing about your experience, you become desensitized to the original negative thoughts and feelings that you originally associated with it.
Cognitive restructuring involves the way that individuals view and respond to stress-related stimuli (Lepore & Smyth, 2002). Reactions to your internal (memory) and external (environmental) stressor-related stimuli contribute to how well you regulate your emotions (Lepore & Smyth, 2002). Your response to stressful events can be further explained by the theory of cognitive dissonance, which states that having conflicting cognitions arouses psychological tension that people are motivated to reduce (Brehm et al., 2005). Expressive writing is an effective way to reduce these feelings of distress.
Writing facilitates adjustment to stressful events by promoting the development of a representation that coherently integrates beliefs, emotions, and experiences so that you can better make sense of troubling events and identify ways to cope with them (Cameron & Nicholls, 1998). Cognitive improvements often become present when you increase the use of cognitive words (e.g., understand, know, realize) in your writing. This displays that you have found a way to understand and deal with your problem (Lepore & Smyth, 2002). In addition, writing can produce a positive change in your beliefs, attitudes, and self-perceptions about the event. Because expressive writing encourages you to explore your deepest thoughts and feelings, you become more connected to yourself, accepting of your feelings, and aware of your emotional reactions (Lepore & Smyth, 2002).
Cognitive models of disclosure
The cognitive model of disclosure is used to describe the process of how a stressful event can impact you. When a stressful or traumatic event occurs, it can be difficult to reconcile it with your pre-existing schemas. Schemas are powerful assumptions and beliefs that you hold about each aspect of the world (Brehm et al., 2005). The discrepancy between the stressful event and your existing schemas causes you to deny, avoid, or suppress your emotional response. Because of the failure to confront your feelings, the traumatic event is stored in your short-term memory in the form of cognitive fragments. As this event remains on your mind, the trauma-related events will continue to have an uncomfortable intrusion on your awareness through thoughts, dreams, and feelings (Lepore & Greenberg, 2002). Until the problem is properly dealt with, you will experience alternating reactions of intrusion and avoidance.
Expressive writing can facilitate cognitive processing by changing the meaning of the trauma’s significance to be more consistent with your existing views. Through writing, you can organize a new narrative by reappraising the situation and modifying your thoughts. Forming a cohesive story (new narrative) is helpful because it diminishes your unprocessed thoughts, memories, and overall confusion about the experience. This leads to the discovery of new perspectives, problem definitions, adaptive behaviors, and coping strategies (Lepore & Greenberg, 2002).
Writing therapy & You
People who engage in writing therapy describe it as a positive experience. An early study evaluating writing therapy as a therapeutic approach found it to be a favorable way to work through problems and gain self-knowledge (Philips, 1977). Overall, the participants reported that they were positively affected by the therapy. They became more assertive, outgoing, and less dependent on social norms and pressures (Philips, 1977).
Expressive writing therapy is a simple and convenient method to help your relationship stresses. You can engage in expressive writing whenever it fits into your schedule, and wherever you feel the most comfortable. Whether you are going through a bad breakup or want to maintain a healthy relationship, writing brings your deepest feelings to the surface and helps you to better understand yourself, your partner, and your situation.
Brehm, S.S., Kassin, S., & Fein, S. (2005). Social psychology. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Cameron, L.D., & Nicholls, G. (1998). Expression of stressful experiences through writing: Effects of a self-regulation manipulation for pessimists and optimists. Health Psychology, 17, 84-92.
Lepore, S.J., & Greenberg, M.A. (2002). Mending broken hearts: Effects of expressive writing on mood, cognitive processing, social adjustment, and health following a relationship breakup. Psychology and Health, 17, 547-260.
Lepore, S.J., & Smyth, J.M. (2002). The writing cure: How expressive writing promotes health and well-being. Washington DC: APA.
Philips, E.L. (1977). On time-limited writing therapy. Psychological Reports, 41, 707-712.
Slatcher, R.B., & Pennebaker, J.W. (2006). How do I love thee? Let me count the words. Psychological Science, 17, 660-665.