Stepping back to move forward: Expressive writing promotes self-distancing

Emotion. 2016 Apr;16(3):349-64. doi: 10.1037/emo0000121. Epub 2015 Oct 12.


Prior research indicates that expressive writing enhances well-being by leading people to construct meaningful narratives that explain distressing life experiences. But how does expressive writing facilitate meaning-making? We addressed this issue in 2 longitudinal studies by examining whether and how expressive writing promotes self-distancing, a process that facilitates meaning-making. At baseline in both studies, participants reflected on a distressing life experience. In Study 1 participants were then randomly assigned to write about their distressing experience or a non-emotional topic for 15 min on 3 consecutive days; in Study 2 participants were randomly assigned to write or think about their distressing experience or write about a non-emotional topic for the same amount of time. One day following the intervention, expressive writing participants in both studies self-distanced more when they reflected over their distressing experience compared with participants in the other conditions, which in turn led them to experience less emotional reactivity 1 month (Studies 1 and 2) and 6 months (Study 2) after the intervention. Analyses using data from both studies indicated that expressive writing reduced physical symptoms indirectly through its effects on self-distancing and emotional reactivity [that is, expressive writing group (vs. comparison groups) → greater self-distancing → less emotional reactivity → fewer physical symptoms]. Finally, linguistic analyses using essays from both studies indicated that increased use of causation words and decreased use of negative emotion words and first-person singular pronouns predicted increases in self-distancing over time. These findings demonstrate that expressive writing promotes self-distancing and illustrate how it does so.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Emotional Adjustment*
  • Emotions*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Life Change Events
  • Linguistics
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Thinking
  • Time Factors
  • Writing*
  • Young Adult