Objective: Divorce is a common stressor that is associated with increased risk for poor long-term physical and mental health. Using an experimental design, the current study examined the impact of expressive writing (EW) on average heart rate (HR), HR variability (HRV), and blood pressure (BP) 7.5 months later.
Methods: Participants from a community sample of recently separated adults (N = 109) were assigned to one of three conditions: traditional EW, narrative EW, or a control writing condition, and were assessed three times for an average of 7.5 months. Each study visit included 27 minutes of physiological assessment; the primary outcomes at each assessment were mean-level HR, HRV, BP scores averaged across six different tasks.
Results: Participants in the traditional EW condition did not significantly differ from control participants in their later HR, HRV, or BP. However, relative to control participants, those in the narrative EW condition had significantly lower HR (B = -3.41, 95% confidence interval = -5.76 to -1.06, p = .004) and higher HRV 7.5 months later (B = 0.41, 95% confidence interval = 0.16 to 0.74, p = .001). When comparing narrative EW participants to those in the traditional EW and control writing as a single group, these effects remained and were moderately sized, Cohen d values of -0.61 and 0.60, respectively, and durable across all task conditions when analyzed in independent models. The writing condition groups did not differ in their later BP.
Conclusions: Narrative EW decreased HR and increased HRV after marital separation but did not affect BP. We discuss the possible disconnect between psychology and physiology in response to EW, as well as possible future clinical applications after marital separation.