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Writing: The Physical and Psychological Differences in Health between Aspirational and Trauma Topics



Previous research has shown that writing about upsetting life events results in superior immune function, reduced health problems, lower skin conductance levels, better adjustment to college, and more quickly finding employment after being laid off (King, 2001). These writings have reportedly shown benefits for even imagined traumatic events and writing about the positive attributes of their trauma as well as writing about the trauma itself (King, 2001). Other research indicates that those who simply speak about their trauma (from trauma related to accidental deaths to survivors of the Holocaust) showed significant improvement in overall health (King, 2001). Furthermore, “individuals who held back from talking about traumatic life events tended to experience chronic autonomic arousal and immune function deterioration“ (King, 2001). Within the progress of these findings, researchers observed that narratives provide participants with a sense of meaningful insight and overcoming a challenge, and catharsis was ruled out. Researchers then wanted to know what would happen when using the narrative style of writing on a more positive subject other than the positive closure trauma gave (King, 2001).

The study took 81 undergraduates, ages 18 to 42, and gave them writing assignments for 20 minutes every day for four consecutive days. The topics of these writings were randomly assigned to write about their “most traumatic life event, their best possible future self (BPS), both of these topics, or a nonemotional control” group in which the participants would write daily to-do lists. After 3 weeks, the moods of each group were documented as well as a questionnaire containing psychological well-being and frequency of visits to the health center to test for physical wellness. The consenting participants’ moods and visits to the health center were documented before and after the writing assignment period to obtain proof of a change in psychological and physical well-being (King, 2001).

Those in the combination group and the best possible self (BPS) writing group showed better results than those who wrote about trauma only, with BPS writers overall showing the best results. As predicted by researchers, the group that wrote about their trauma narrated in a more negative, emotional, less optimistic, and less attributing of responsibility (although the responsibility for others increased) (King, 2001). As observed, the control group that focused on writing of to-do lists and not insight, showed more physical illness, this could explain the conflict theory of the negative effects of keeping emotions and events inside (King, 2001).The trauma writing group showed a increase in wellness as well as the combination group, with less visits to the health center than the control group. However, the results of the psychological and physical well-being within the BPS writing group showed the most difference. Those who wrote about BPS showed a marginally significant decrease in health center visits, increased their positivity, and stabilized their emotions (King, 2001). The explanation of the lack of health benefits from the combination group might be explained by the interruption of flow, causing the closure of the topic to feel forced (King, 2001).

Writing about one’s BPS is described as the top of the motivation hierarchy (King, 2001). Research has shown that writing about possible selves promoted better correlations between memory, self-esteem, and delinquency (King, 2001). Combining the benefits of narrative writing within the trauma studies along with the goal-based writing of possible selves, prompted researchers to investigate the benefits of writing a narrative about one’s possible self. The article describes that having individuals write about unresolved conflicts has long-term benefits, and writing about life goals could reduce goal conflict (King, 2001). It is also noted that other positive topics are to be studied, as BTS was just one example. However, writing about nonemotional, self-awareness topics about goals and aspirations may be a promotion in self-regulation (King, 2001). This level of writing exceeds the standards of the control group, those who simply wrote about their plans for the day. Overall when it comes to the benefits of writing, “thinking seriously about an important topic is essential to the healthbenefits of writing, but emotional anguish is not” (King, 2001).

Writing about both topics, trauma and best possible selves, are similar in that they are engaging, emotional, challenging, and important (King, 2001). However, BPS corresponded to an overall increase in positive mood, less emotional fluxuations, and more optimism. For future studies, more topics and styles of writings are encouraged towards broad availability of individuals, other than college students (King, 2001).






Citation

King, Laura A. “The Health Benefits of Writing About Life Goals.” Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 27, no. 7, 2001, pp. 798–807, https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167201277003.


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