Shannon Bolithoe : A Writing Life

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Using creative writing to improve health and wellbeing

By Toni Kennedy

Writing about a past traumatic experience has been repeatedly associated with improvements in health and psychological wellbeing. An explanation of these beneficial effects is that the process allows an active reappraisal of the event, marked by changes in cognitive linguistic indicators. One experiment examined the benefits of changes in words expressing cognitive reappraisal on levels of anxiety, as a proxy of stress. Seventy undergraduates, randomly divided in experimental and control groups, wrote about a past painful event or a neutral topic. In a longitudinal design, measures of anxiety were assessed before the writing sessions and four months afterwards. Findings confirm that expressive writing has positive effect on anxiety after a four-month-long follow-up period.

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Expressive writing as an adjunct treatment for substance abuse

Although women with substance use disorders (SUDs) have high rates of trauma and posttraumatic stress, many addiction programs do not offer trauma-specific treatments. One promising intervention is Pennebaker’s expressive writing, which involves daily, 20-minute writing sessions to facilitate disclosure of stressful experiences. In one study women in residential treatment completed a randomized clinical trial comparing expressive writing with control writing. An analysis was conducted to measure changes in psychological and physical distress. Analyses also examined immediate levels of negative affect following expressive writing. The results of the study showed that expressive writing participants showed greater reductions in posttraumatic symptom severity, depression, and anxiety scores, when compared with control writing participants. Although expressive writing participants showed increased negative affect immediately after each writing session, there were no differences in pre-writing negative affect scores between conditions the following day. By the final writing session, participants were able to write about traumatic/stressful events without having a spike in negative affect. The results of this study suggest that expressive writing may be a brief, safe, low-cost, adjunct to treatment for substance use disorders as a strategy for addressing posttraumatic distress in substance-abusing women

SUBSTANCE ABUSE, 35: 80–88, 2014 Expressive Writing as a Therapeutic Process for Drug-Dependent Women
Sarah Meshberg-Cohen, Dace Svikis and Thomas J. McMahon.