Optimizing the perceived benefits and health outcomes of writing about traumatic life events

Matthew A Andersson, Colleen S Conley
Stress and Health: Journal of the International Society for the Investigation of Stress 2013, 29 (1): 40-9
Expressive writing, which involves disclosing one's deepest thoughts and feelings about a stressful life event by using a first-person perspective, has been linked to gains in health and well-being, though effect sizes range widely. Assuming a third-person perspective is a natural and effective way of coping with highly distressing events. Therefore, the current study examined whether a distanced, third-person approach to expressive writing might be more beneficial than a traditional, first-person intervention for high baseline levels of event-linked intrusive thinking. Randomly assigned participants wrote expressively about traumatic life events by using a first-person or third-person-singular perspective. Linguistic analyses showed that assuming a first-person perspective is linked to higher levels of in-text cognitive engagement, whereas a third-person perspective is linked to lower cognitive engagement. However, in a context of higher levels of intrusive thinking, third-person expressive writing, relative to a traditional first-person approach, yielded (1) greater perceived benefits and positive, long-lasting effects as well as (2) fewer days of activity restriction due to illness. Although more research is needed, these results suggest that third-person expressive writing may be an especially fitting technique for recovering from traumatic or highly stressful life events.

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