Study: Journaling After a Breakup Only Makes Things Worse

Divorcees encouraged to express themselves through writing had a harder time moving on.

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JoelMontes/Flickr

PROBLEM: It's a paradigm of traditional psychology to have distressed patients express their feeling in writing -- the experience, as anyone who's kept an angsty diary (guilty) will attest to, can feel extremely cathartic. Newer theories have focused on the ability to form a coherent narrative as important to the coping and recovery process following a traumatic event. Researchers at the University of Arizona hypothesized that focusing creative word vomit into narrative form could help patients with the highest tendency to ruminate about the past to pull themselves together and move on following divorce.

METHODOLOGY: Ninety recently divorced or separated men and women were asked to write in a journal for 20 minutes a day, over three consecutive days. Some of them were instructed to "really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts;" others were asked to record the tale of their failed marriage as a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Those remaining kept an opinion and emotion-free log of their daily activities. The researchers assessed the participants' emotional baselines before the journal-thon began, and then followed up 8 months later. 

RESULTS: The participants who were the most ruminative, and who "were judged to be actively engaged in the search for meaning," made the least progress in dealing with their emotions when instructed to express their emotions through writing.

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The researchers weren't expecting this. But by follow-up, on scales measuring response to a traumatic event, depressive mood disturbances, and "loss and rediscovery of self," the participants who fared best turned out to be the control group: those who engaged in dry data collection.

There were no major effects of any types of journaling for those with less ruminative personalities. 

Nothing was reported on how having researchers rigorously analyze every word of their very personal diary entries affected the participants' emotional states.

IMPLICATIONS: Once they got over their surprise, the researchers were able to go back and see how their findings actually make a lot of sense (or at least, they were able to spin it that way). "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," said lead author and psychological scientist David Sbarra. "Some people might naively call this avoidance, but it's not avoidance. It is just re-engagement in life, and the control writing asks people to engage in this process." 

In other words, indulging your angst only prolongs your suffering. You heard the man, Dashboard Confessional. Pack it up.


The full study, "Expressive Writing Can Impede Emotional Recovery Following Marital Separation," will be published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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