Some emotional burdens can feel too large and cumbersome to carry on our own. Whether it is extreme joy, intense heartbreak, overwhelming fear — we often feel a natural desire to share our emotions with others in order not to experience the enormity of them alone. However, when these emotions stem from a past or present trauma, the vulnerability it takes to confide honestly and openly in others might be too daunting to overcome. In 1986, researchers James W. Pennebaker and Sandra Klihr Beall conducted a study to determine whether or not writing down these thoughts and feelings could have benefits for a person’s health similar to the benefits that come from confiding in others. The findings of this study may have huge implications for how we help each other cope, grow, and heal after trauma.
Confiding Without Social Vulnerability
When experiencing emotions too big to handle alone, people often seek support and advice from family members and peers. The act of self-disclosure, or “getting things off your chest,” is cathartic and usually leads to a clearer mind and a new sense of determination to grow and move forward. In fact, studies have found that individuals who do not talk with others about their past trauma(s) have a higher likelihood of later developing stress-related diseases (Pennebaker & O’Heeron, 1984; Pennebaker & Hoover, 1986).
However, some traumatic experiences can feel too personal, too intense, or too embarrassing to disclose to others. When you confide in another person, you are tasked with being extremely vulnerable, and this feeling of exposure can seem far too daunting for many people to overcome.
We know that self-disclosure can lead to future health benefits, but one has to overcome many obstacles before feeling comfortable enough to share their emotions with others. How do we reconcile this contradiction? Pennebaker and Beall propose one of the oldest forms of personal catharsis: writing it down.
In Pennebaker and Beall’s study, participants were asked to write about a trauma in their life for fifteen minutes a night for four consecutive nights (Pennebaker and Beall, 1986). The forty-six participants were divided into four different groups. One group was tasked to only write about the factual events of the traumatic experience(s), avoiding any details of emotion or feeling, while another group was tasked to only write about their feelings pertaining to the event and the event’s emotional impact without discussing the event itself. Another group was asked to write about both the event and their emotional reactions to the event. The fourth group served as the control group, writing about arbitrary topics that did not relate to trauma. All participants completed a short questionnaire that asked whether they were experiencing physical symptoms such as headache or stomachache and asked them to report their current mood. Additionally, participants’ heart rates and blood pressure were recorded as measures of physiological arousal. These measures of physical symptoms, mood, and physiological arousal were taken before and after participants completed their assigned writing task.
The results of the study indicated that the groups that included emotional details in their writing experienced the most health benefits from writing (Pennebaker and Beall, 1986). The participants in the just-emotion and emotion-fact-combination groups experienced initial physiological arousal when first writing and re-living their traumas, and also experienced long-term decreases in their overall health problems. The group that only wrote about the facts of their past traumatic event saw results similar to the control group and experienced little to no arousal or benefit (Pennebaker and Beall, 1986). Needless to say, emotions matter. They matter in coping. They matter to our health.
Building a Mind-Body Connection
Eating disorder research indicates that the development of disordered eating relates to the connection one has with their own body. Listening to our body cues such as hunger or pain is key to a healthy relationship with ourselves. In addition to giving us clues about our physical needs, our body cues can signal our emotional needs. Emotional awareness takes practice, and writing about our feelings in response to events in our daily life can help us learn to tune in to these signals. When a person is able to disclose their deeper thoughts and feelings related to trauma, they are more likely to see later health benefits. When we can connect to ourselves, we can work towards a healthier future. And writing about our emotions may just be the key to doing so.
Though Pennebaker and Beall’s study lays a foundation for future ideas about writing, coping, trauma, and disclosure, it comes up short in finding the mechanism through which self-disclosure protects against stress-related disease. However, the self-reports of the forty-six participants give hope that we might be onto something. Participants who wrote about past traumas felt as though writing had given them a new understanding of themselves and that they were able to realize for the first time how much their trauma had impacted their lives (Pennebaker and Beall, 1986). Participants also expressed that they were finally able to gain much needed closure and begin the process of moving on as a result of taking time to journal and connect to their innermost thoughts and feelings (Pennebaker and Beall, 1986).
Where to Begin
Journaling is a safe way to confide in yourself. You can begin the journey of listening to yourself, and do so at a pace you are completely in control of. If you are living with traumas, insecurities, anxieties, or emotions that seem too big to carry alone, opening up to others can be a daunting step to take. Writing out your questions, anxieties, and secrets can allow you to organize your thoughts, see them from a new perspective, and feel as though some of that inner burden has been freed and released on paper. Below are some writing exercises that you can try.
- Take fifteen minutes a night to write down the events that happened to you just during that day and how they made you feel. Journaling, like most things in life, takes practice.
- As you write about your emotions throughout the day, begin trying to identify what they might have been in reaction to. Ask yourself, “What caused this emotion?” and, “How intensely did I feel this emotion at the time vs. how intensely do I feel this emotion right now?”
- Eventually, once you feel comfortable, begin branching out with your writing. Don’t confine yourself to day-by-day journaling. Events that happened years ago can still have effects on your emotional state today, especially if you didn’t fully realize the time or tools needed to cope with the event when it happened. Start journaling and reflecting on the bigger moments of your life.
Self-reflection leads to self-understanding, which can begin the journey toward self-healing.
by Holly Holder
Pennebaker, J. W., & Beall, S. K. (1986). Confronting a traumatic event: Toward an understanding of inhibition and disease. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 95(3), 274-281.
Pennebaker, J. W., & Hoover, C. W. (1986). Inhibition and cognition: Toward an understanding of trauma and disease. In R. J. Davidson, G. E. Schwartz, & D. Shapiro (Eds.), Consciousness and self-regulation (Vol. 4, pp. 107-136). New York: Plenum Press.
Pennebaker, J. W., & O’Heeron, R. C. (1984). Confiding in others and illness rates among spouses of suicide and accidental-death victims. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 93, 473-476.