Expressing Negative Experience is Both Symptom and Cure

Some of my favourite research in psychology finds that expressive writing can benefit both physical and mental health.

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Here’s a puzzle. Some of my favourite research in psychology finds that expressive writing can benefit both physical and mental health. And yet research on the social sharing of negative experience tells us that it doesn’t change the original memory and fails to bring relief. How come benefits are seen from expressive writing – which is often about sharing negative experience – and yet social sharing of emotions doesn’t bring relief? Let’s take a closer look.

Benefits of expressive writing

Many of the expressive writing studies have been carried out by Professor James Pennebaker at the University of Texas and colleagues. A typical experiment involves one group writing down their thoughts and feelings for a period (Pennebaker & Chung, in press). The second control group write for the same time, but on a superficial subject. Time after time the expressive writing group show a variety of benefits. Most notably they improve on psychological and physiological outcomes, with some studies showing the practice is more effective than types of therapy.

This is a really well researched area with more than 150 studies published since the first one in 1986. Many different aspects have been examined: the subjects that people write about, whether they concentrate on the good or the bad and how writing compares to talking to yourself or talking to others.

The findings from the expressive writing studies generally fit in with how we expect our emotional worlds to work (although the magnitude of the findings is surprising). Specifically: bottling up or keeping your emotions inside is detrimental. Using expressive writing or other techniques to let them out, however, is likely to be beneficial.

Not so fast – life is rarely that simple.

Social sharing of negative experience

In fact, it turns out from a series of studies conducted by Bernard Rime (Universite catholique de Louvain) and colleagues, that socially sharing an emotion does not actually bring emotional relief. In other words: letting it out doesn’t help.

One experiment had participants share the most upsetting emotional events of their lives, in detail. This was done in a variety of different ways with some participants emphasising factual accounts and others emphasising emotional accounts. These conditions were then compared to a control where participants talked about a nonemotional topic.

When all the participants were followed up two months later, the effect of sharing had no impact on the memory of their most upsetting event. Despite this, those in the emotional sharing condition still thought the experience had been beneficial to them.

To many people this will seem counter-intuitive, but it is nevertheless a strong finding in the research. Yes, people feel compelled to share negative emotional experiences. Yes, people generally think it is beneficial to share their negative emotional experiences. No, sharing negative experiences doesn’t seem to change the original memory in any measurable way. No, sharing negative experiences isn’t associated with recovery from a traumatic experience.

In fact, it’s worse than that, people who continue to share negative experiences tend to show less recovery.

Symptom and cure?

So, how to solve this puzzle? First, the research says it’s possible to benefit from expressive writing, then it says letting your emotions out is associated with lack of recovery from negative emotional experiences. What’s going on?

Part of the solution probably lies in the fact that expressing negative emotions is both a symptom and part of the cure. Pennebaker (2001) provides this analogy. People often get a fever when they’re ill. The fever is both a sign of illness and part of the healing process. It’s the same with sharing negative emotions. It’s a sign of trauma or difficult experience and it can also be part of the healing process, in certain circumstances.

On top of this, we’re all different. Some people feel inhibited about discussing negative emotional experiences, and it’s these people that benefit most from expressive writing. This is backed up by the finding that generally speaking men – who are more likely to be inhibited – benefit more from expressive writing than women.

Another explanation is that it depends on exactly how we are sharing negative experiences with each other. A study reported recently here found that careful analysis of negative emotions is beneficial, but analysis of positive emotions is not.

Unexpected findings

Ultimately these two lines of research are fascinating precisely because they are unexpected. Sharing negative experience is supposed to reduce the emotional aftershock. Research says no. Surely expressive writing is too benign an activity to make any difference? Again, wrong – it actually has quite a beneficial effect. Resolving their divergent conclusions, however, will have to wait for future research.

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Pennebaker, J.W., & Chung, C.K. (in press). Expressive writing, emotional upheavals, and health. In H. Friedman and R. Silver (Eds.), Handbook of health psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pennebaker, J.W. (2001). Disclosing and Sharing Emotion: Psychological, Social and Health Consequences. In: M.S. Stroebe, W. Stroebe, R.O. Hansson, & H. Schut (Eds.) Handbook of bereavement research: Consequences, coping, and care (pp. 517-539). Washington DC: American Psychological Association.

Author: Dr Jeremy Dean

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004.

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