Going through a divorce is incredibly stressful for most people who find themselves in the throes of a separation. And all that stress adds up, threatening both physical and mental health.
To cope, many divorcees are encouraged to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings. This kind of expressive writing has been shown in some studies to have a small but positive impact on psychological wellbeing after stressful or traumatic events, possibly by giving sufferers a sense of meaning and a route towards understanding what has happened.
BLOG: Negative Thoughts? Toss 'EmPsychologists from the University of Arizona, Tucson, wanted to learn more about exactly how expressive writing might work to help people after a relationship breakdown. So they asked 90 recently divorced or separated adults to write in a journal for 20 minutes, three days in a row.
Some participants were told to write about their feelings as a narrative, telling the story of their marriage with a beginning, middle and end. A second group wrote more freely and expressively about their feelings. A third group was assigned to just write about their daily lives, without touching on heavy emotions.
Eight months after the experiment, the researchers will report in Clinical Psychological Science, they were surprised to find that writing about feelings could backfire, particularly for people who have a tendency to brood over their situations. For these "high ruminators," distress dropped the most when they wrote about basic life happenings rather than emotions.
"If a person goes over and over something in their head, and then you say, 'Write down your deepest darkest thoughts and go over it again,' we will intensify their distress," said lead researcher David Sbarra in a press release. Far better, he said, is to find ways to re-engage in living.
"If you're someone who tends to be totally in your head and go over and over what happened and why it happened, you need to get out of your head and just start thinking about how you're going to put your life back together and organize your time."
People on the low end of the rumination spectrum ended up in the same emotional place no matter what kind of writing they did, suggesting that therapists might want to rethink their advice to divorcees, depending on each patient's personality.
"I think many, many therapists have a tendency to believe that journaling unequivocally is a good thing to do, especially when people are trying to figure things out in their head," Sbarra said. "This study is important because it challenges our notions about what might be the thing to do to promote healing after a divorce. It makes us reconsider the things we do to try to put our lives back together."
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