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Can expressive writing change emotions? An oblique answer to the wrong question.

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Abstract

It seems like such a simple question. There is good evidence that expressive writing methods bring about relatively long-term changes to physical health, mental health, and, yes, emotions. Unfortunately, the question implies that we know what we are talking about when we use the term “emotion.” The purpose of this paper is to challenge the ways scientists think about emotion by drawing on recent findings in neuroscience, language, and expressive writing.
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Pennebaker, J. W., & Ferrell, J. D. (2013). Can expressive writing change emotions? An
oblique answer to the wrong question. In D. Hermans, B. Rimé, & B. Mesquita (Eds.),
Changing Emotions (pp. 183-186). New York, NY: Psychology Press.!
25 Can expressive writing change
emotions? An oblique answer to the
wrong question
James W. Pennebaker and Jason D. Ferrell
University of Texas at Austin
It seems like such a simple question. There is good evidence that expressive
writing methods bring about relatively long-term changes to physical health,
mental health, and, yes, emotions. Unfortunately, the question implies that we
know what we are talking about when we use the term “emotion.” The purpose
of this paper is to challenge the ways scientists think about emotion by drawing
on recent ndings in neuroscience, language, and expressive writing.
The problem of emotion and emotion regulation
Emotions do not stand alone. Charles Darwin, William James, Walter Cannon,
Stanley Schachter, and most modern neuroscientists have acknowledged that
emotions are connected to eliciting events. More recent models emphasize that
the perceptions of eliciting events involve the fusing of cognitive and emotional
systems in ways that cannot be separated (Scherer, 2009). Striking examples
have been reported by Antonio Damasio (1994) wherein patients with temporary
frontal lobe damage lost the ability to experience emotion. While playing a
laboratory-based poker game, the emotion loss actually hampered the ability
to play effectively. Although a logical game, Damasio demonstrated that logic
requires emotional responses to judge a risky versus a safe bet.
Emotions and cognitions are ultimately all part of the same neural system. This
is apparent in our research with people who have endured a traumatic or other
upsetting experience. In the months after losing a spouse or being red from a
job, people continue to obsess about their experience while feeling the emotional
reactions when the thoughts recur. In short, emotional states continue over time
by merely thinking about them.
If a man is still angry about losing his job six months afterwards, can we “x”
the problem by training him to regulate his emotions? If he reports feeling angry
much of the time, should we be initiating therapy, giving drugs, or encouraging
psychosurgery to reduce the anger? If emotions and the cognitive representations
of an experience are a single system, such a strategy makes no sense. To regulate
emotions, we also need to regulate the experience. That is, if we are seeking
long-term change in emotions, we must regulate the whole system.
9781848720909.indd 183 07/12/2012 12:16
184 James W. Pennebaker and Jason D. Ferrell
Expressive writing, emotions, and thoughts
The inherent connection between thoughts and emotions is apparent in work
that has been done using expressive writing. In the typical study, participants
are randomly assigned to write about a traumatic experience or a non-emotional
control topic for three or four sessions, each lasting 15–30 minutes (Frattaroli,
2006; Pennebaker and Chung, 2011). Those assigned to the trauma condition are
asked to explore their deepest thoughts and emotions about the most upsetting
experience in their lives on each day of writing. Control participants are generally
asked to describe non-emotional objects or events such as a tree or how they have
used their time in the last 24 hours.
On the surface, the expressive writing paradigm sounds innocuous. In fact,
participants in the trauma condition usually write intensely personal and powerful
narratives. After each day’s writing, participants usually report feeling emotionally
drained, sad, and sometimes angry. In post-writing interviews, many tell us that
between the writing sessions they tend to think about, and even dream about, their
writing topics.
The success of the expressive writing paradigm has been in its ability to
inuence people’s physical and mental health. Since the publication of the rst
study in 1986, over 200 articles have been published using the expressive writing
paradigm. Those assigned to the trauma conditions typically evidence better
physical health in the weeks and months after writing, as measured by visits
to physicians, markers of immune function, days absent from work, and other
behavioral and biological measures. The writing paradigm produces consistent
but very modest effects in objective health outcomes over several months.
Meta-analyses report that the effect sizes for behavioral, biological, physical, and
psychological outcomes average d = 0.15 (e.g., Frattaroli, 2006).
Expressive writing produces long-term improvements in emotional states as
well. People assigned to expressive writing conditions have more positive moods
than those assigned to write about non-emotional topics 2–3 months following
writing sessions. People who write expressively have reduced depressive symptoms
compared to participants who write non-emotionally one month following
expressive writing sessions (Sloan and Marx, 2004). Indeed, replication of the
expressive writing paradigm in randomized experimental studies provides evidence
of long-term improvements in emotions in people that write expressively compared
to people who don’t (for meta-analyses, see Frattaroli, 2006; Smyth, 1998).
Expressive writing can change both emotions and physical health over several
weeks and months. But what are the active mechanisms? A large number of
experiments have attempted to answer this question over the last two decades.
Sadly, the answer is not straightforward. Rather, there appears to be a cascade of
inter-related effects. Here is a brief summary of what we currently know:
For expressive writing to work, people must write about both their thoughts
and feelings about an upsetting experience. Writing just about the events or
just about their emotions is not sufcient to bring about change.
9781848720909.indd 184 07/12/2012 12:16
Can expressive writing change emotions? 185
Expressive writing must involve the building of a narrative that allows the
authors to stand back and adopt a broad perspective (e.g., Smyth, True, and
Souto, 2001).
Expressive writing allows people to move through the traumatic experience
in a way where they don’t think about it as much. Various studies indicate
that people subsequently have better working memory (e.g., Klein and Boals,
2001) which may partially explain why they later perform better at school
(e.g., Lumley and Provenzano, 2003).
Expressive writing brings about subtle but measurable changes in the
ways people socialize with others. In the months after writing, they tend to
talk with others more, laugh more, and are more socially engaged (e.g., Kim,
2008).
Expressive writing as a way of reconstructing an emotional event
In reading people’s emotional essays, very rarely do people ever talk in great
depth about their emotional states. Rather, they write about the emotional event
itself and how it affected their lives and the people around them. Their stories
reveal personal struggles about how they have tried to make sense of the event.
Yes, they often mention the emotions that have come from living through their
upheavals, but the emotions themselves are generally not the problem. The
problem has been the events and their memories.
In the months after participating in our studies, we have often asked people to
describe how the writing studies affected them. The reports are overwhelmingly
positive. Interestingly, the most common responses are cognitive. Examples
include: “It helped me think about what I felt during those times. I never realized
how it affected me before” or “I was able to put things together in ways I couldn’t
do back then.”
When people write, they are rethinking the event itself. As a number of
our computer-based language analyses have demonstrated, those people who
construct or reconstruct what happened are the ones who benet the most
from writing (e.g., Pennebaker, 2011). For the expressive writer, perception
of the emotional event changes during the cognitive process of rethinking and
reconstructing. The intimate links among perception, sensation, and cognition
presupposes that any change changes the whole system. If cognitions and percep-
tions change, the sensations, emotions, and feelings associated with the event also
change.
Summary
In answer to the title of this paper, yes, expressive writing can change emotions.
But ultimately, the question exposes a misguided view of emotion. Expressive
writing changes the event itself—the way it is thought about, the way it is
organized, and even the way it is remembered. As the event is reshaped in the
person’s mind, the corresponding emotions have to change as well.
9781848720909.indd 185 07/12/2012 12:16
186 James W. Pennebaker and Jason D. Ferrell
Can expressive writing change emotions? The more appropriate question is:
can expressive writing change the memory of traumatic experiences? We think
that future research will provide an unequivocal answer in the afrmative.
Acknowledgement
Preparation of this manuscript was aided by funding from the Army Research
Institute (W91 WAW-07-C-0029) and the National Science Foundation
(NSCC-0904822).
References
Damasio, A. R. (1994). Descartes’ error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. New
York: G. P. Putnam.
Frattaroli. J. (2006). “Experimental disclosure and its moderators: A meta-analysis”.
Psychological Bulletin, 132, 823–65.
Kim, Y. (2008). “Effects of expressive writing among bilinguals: Exploring psychological
well-being and social behaviour”. British Journal of Health Psychology, 13, 43–7.
Klein, K., and Boals, A. (2001). “Expressive writing can increase working memory
capacity”. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130, 520–33.
Lumley, M. A., and Provenzano, K. M. (2003). “Stress management through written
emotional disclosure improves academic performance among college students with
physical symptoms”. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 641–9.
Pennebaker, J. W. (2011). The secret life of pronouns: How our words reveal who we are.
New York: Bloomsbury Press.
Pennebaker, J. W., and Chung, C. K. (2011). “Expressive writing: Connections to mental
and physical health”. In H. S. Friedman (ed.), Oxford handbook of health psychology.
New York, Oxford University Press.
Scherer, K. R. (2009). “The dynamic architecture of emotion: Evidence for the component
process model”. Cognition and Emotion, 23, 1307–51.
Sloan, D. M., and Marx, B. P. (2004). “A closer examination of the structured written
disclosure procedure”. Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, 72, 165–75.
Smyth, J. M. (1998). “Written emotional expression: Effect sizes, outcome types, and
moderating variables”. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 66, 174–84.
Smyth, J. M., True, N., and Souto, J. (2001). “Effects of writing about traumatic
experiences: The necessity for narrative structuring”. Journal of Social and Clinical
Psychology, 20, 161–72.
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