Does Venting Work?
Many people keep diaries and regularly journal about their feelings and reactions to what happens during the course of their lives. Challenging events and painful feelings especially tend to fill up space on the page. Such venting of emotion through writing has conventionally been thought of as cathartic and relieving.
Many of the clients I meet with in my psychotherapy practice ask me if it would help their healing process to journal about the trauma they’ve experienced. Here’s what I tell them:
Research over the past ten years has shown that writing about one’s deepest thoughts and feelings about traumatic experiences has mixed results at best. This type of journaling, called expressive writing, has been found to actually increase distress and lower mood, especially in the short-run.
But there are other forms of therapeutic writing that do not come at an emotional cost. A recent study out of Germany published in the Journal of Positive Psychology examined the use of a resource diary. Participants were asked to write down positive experiences and personal resources, answers to such questions as What gave you strength today? How did this become apparent to you? Which aspects of your personality are you content with? What do you like about yourself? What do you think others like about you?
The comparison group in the study kept an expressive writing diary for an equal length of time, engaging with negative emotional experiences. After four weeks of diary keeping, the results showed that those who focused on positive experiences and strengths with the resource diary demonstrated a significantly better mood than those who did the expressive writing focusing on painful emotions. The resource diary group also perceived more social support in their lives than the comparison group. This is an important finding because perceived social support is correlated with overall well-being and health.
Thus, when we bring written attention to what’s going well for us – our abilities and qualities, our relationships and resources - we tend to feel better than we do when we document painful wounds and grievances in our diaries.
It should be noted, though, that the healing of trauma is a process which does often require directly working with and through difficult emotions. We just need to make sure that the writing we do actually moves us in the direction of insight and growth, rather than reactivating old injuries and complicating our recovery. The guidance of a mental health professional is usually an essential component in the therapeutic treatment of trauma.