TUCSON, Ariz. — If you’re going through a divorce, a specific form of journaling may help you make it through the process with less distress, a new study finds.
Divorce can be a brutal experience for couples, often creating severe stress that can certainly take its toll on a person’s mental health, but also on their heart health too. Previous research has shown people who have gone through divorce are 20 percent more likely to suffer from heart disease, diabetes, or cancer.
Could writing about the experience lessen those odds?
Researchers at the University of Arizona, Tucson recruited 109 recently separated individuals, 70 of whom were female.
Each participant was assigned to complete one of three writing exercises required to be performed at least three times over a period of several days.
One writing exercise was of a traditional expressive variety, in which participants were instructed to write about their “strongest and deepest emotions”; another consisted of penning a “coherent and organized narrative” of one’s separation experience, including their ultimate divorce; and the last writing exercise was emotionally neutral, serving as a placebo of sorts.
The researchers found that the narrative exercise, termed “narrative expressive writing,” resulted in reduced heart rate for the participants, along with an increase in heart rate variability (HRV), which indicates a better functioning of the body’s ability to handle emotions such as stress through the parasympathetic nervous system.
While the benefit was modest — seven fewer heartbeats a minute than the other two groups— the effect was demonstrated consistently both under conditions of calm and stress. There were also no negative consequences found through those who complete narrative expressive writing— e.g., increased anxiety in those who were inclined toward introspection.
“From this work, we can make two specific conclusions,” says lead researcher Dr. David Sbarra in a journal press release. “First, relative to the two other conditions, narrative expressive writing caused the changes we observed in the cardiovascular biomarkers. This is a pretty striking result for just 60 minutes of writing over three days. Second, the effects of narrative writing on these health-relevant biomarkers is independent of adults’ self-reported emotional responses about their separation. Creating narrative may be good for the heart, so to speak, but this does not mean there’s a corresponding improvement in psychological wellbeing.”
Considering how divorce often leads to poor mental and physical health, this research helps shine a light on how to prevent or ameliorate the adverse impacts that separation brings.
“The results suggest that the ability to create a structured narrative—not just re-experiencing emotions but making meaning out of them—allows people to process their feelings in a more adaptive way,” adds co-author and psychology doctoral student Kyle J. Bourassa, “which may in turn help improve their cardiovascular health.”
The study’s findings were published in Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine.