Putting Pen to Paper Helps Manage Stress

Some of the scars left by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita will still be around long after ravaged homes are rebuilt and lives are put back together again. These are the scars that are deep inside the victims – the stress and the trauma that, for some, will linger on for years.

How do you deal with the loss of so much, so quickly? One answer, according to psychologists, is to write about it.

"They should keep a journal, and be very explicit about their thoughts," says psychologist Louise Sundararajan of the Rochester Psychiatric Center in New York.

Sundararajan says scientists have known of the therapeutic benefits of expressive writing for decades, but her latest research shows that it's not just what you write that matters — it's partly how you say it.

"Spill out your guts," she says, and you could be on the road to recovery.

Word and Thought Processing

Volumes of research show it works, she adds, because writing forces the brain to process its thoughts.

You can have fears and worries lurking in the back of your brain that you never really deal with. But if you write about those thoughts and fears and worries, you have to think about them – mentally process them – as you write.

"Writing is processing," she says.

Processing is a popular word among psychologists, because some of our problems are caused by the fact that we don't always process our feelings and thoughts. Sometimes we just let them lie there, festering like an open sore.

Writing is a successful therapy, she says, because it addresses both components of mental processing.

"One component is when you write, you spell things out. You say how much you hate it, or love it, and you use all the feeling words you can think of," Sundararajan says.

"But there's another kind of processing, and the two have to go hand in hand. You restructure the whole thing. You take a step back, you look at it, you reflect on the whole thing. That's very important. That's a psychological distance you have to keep.

"You need to do both."

Less Stress Regardless of Subject

Sundararajan found evidence for that in an earlier study, by another researcher, that was supposed to show the benefits of expressive writing. But it failed to do that.

Psychologist Anna Graybeal of the University of Texas in Austin recruited 86 college students whose parents were going through a divorce. Half of the students were to write about their thoughts concerning the divorce; the other half were asked to write about time management (which is about as boring as you can get).

The expectation was that those who wrote expressively about divorce would show clear signs of reduced stress, such as slower pulse and less perspiration, and those who wrote about time management would still be stressed out. But both groups showed the same level of improvement.

Matters of the Mind

What went wrong?

All of the participants were interviewed prior to the experiment, and all were asked about their parents' divorce. They were asked to discuss their most painful memories, their personal trauma, and their strongest emotional reaction to the divorce, among other things.

Sundararajan says that interview set the stage, "priming" all of the participants to think about divorce. Thus thinking about it, and discussing it with Graybeal, forced the participants to deal with the issue, thus lowering stress for both groups.

Sundararajan, however, developed a comprehensive language analysis program and took another look at Graybeal's data. What she found, she says, is that both groups continued to process their thoughts on divorce, but they did so differently.

By analyzing words and phrases and syntax, and other indexes of mental processing, Sundararajan found that the participants who wrote about time management continued to dwell subconsciously on their parents' divorce. She found patterns and words, for example, that indicated the participants were still struggling with their emotions.

"They were still processing their emotions without realizing they were doing it," she says.

Primed for Recovery

But the other group, writing expressively about divorce, let it all hang out. They were, as Sundararajan says, "spilling their guts."

So while both groups showed similar results in terms of reduced stress, there was a profound difference in what really happened, she adds.

Those who wrote about divorce were able to back off and reflect on their circumstances. In other words, they were better equipped to deal with it.

But those who wrote about time management continued to dwell on their problems (even though they didn't know it) and thus never stepped back.

"That's not good for you," Sundararajan says, because the wounds remained untreated.

Writing, on the other hand, forced the participants to deal openly with their concerns, and then begin putting them into perspective.

"They were able to step back and not be completely carried away by their trouble," she says.

They were better "primed," as she puts it, for recovery.

Lee Dye's column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.