Self-esteem sways benefits of expressive writing

(Credit: Getty Images)

Expressive autobiographical writing—similar to journaling, but not necessarily a long-term endeavor—has well documented health benefits our psychological well-being, but new research suggests that it doesn’t work the same for everyone.

“Whether this is beneficial or harmful, at least in the short term, seemed to depend on the level of self-esteem when people began writing,” says Melanie Green, an associate professor of communication at the University at Buffalo and author of a new paper detailing the research, which appears in Personality and Individual Differences.

“For some people we discovered the typical results. Writing was good and brought out positive emotions, but for other people this experience actually was negative and dragged them back to a painful event.”

For the study, researchers focused on bias, asking 215 participants to write about a time in their lives when someone treated or judged them differently based on something about the individual writer.

The group had 48 hours to think about the bias-related event and then to write continuously about it for 10 minutes. Afterward, participants completed an emotional assessment to gauge their reaction to the writing task.

“If you had people who felt good about themselves they were able to write about this event and doing so was a more empowering experience,” says Green, an expert in storytelling and the power of narrative. “But for people coming in feeling down about themselves, writing about this event was a negative experience, one more reminder of the struggles faced and why life wasn’t good for them.”

Writing your divorce story can be good for your heart

The new work is distinct from previous studies on expressive writing in that it centers on bias-related events and participants wrote only once as opposed to longer writing sessions over several days.

“This research shows how the experience of writing is not necessarily equally beneficial for everyone, something that both clinicians and writers might want to be aware of,” Green says.

“In our case we looked at the short-term perspective, but this certainly opens the door for possible further research looking at more long-term measures.”

Source: University at Buffalo