By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“The very act of putting [words] down—getting them out of the beehive of the head and onto the objective reality of paper—is a form of clarification.” — Pico Iyer
People have used writing as therapy for psychological issues spontaneously throughout history. They’ve used logs, journals, diaries, essays, etc. to help cope with stresses and traumas. Research has verified the benefits of expressive writing, demonstrating that writing has beneficial psychological and even physical effects from improving mood, to relieving stress, to strengthening the immune system, to decreasing depression. It appears that the nature of the writing makes a difference, with writing about problems and traumatic events having greater benefits than simply writing about everyday events.
It is not known exactly how writing has such beneficial effects. It has been pointed out that writing about one’s problems or traumatic events is very similar to the process of psychotherapy. In addition, it’s been noted that expressive writing is a focused attention task much like mindfulness training. Indeed, mindfulness training has similar beneficial effects as expressive writing; improving emotion regulation, lowering depression, strengthening the immune system, and relieving stress. Hence, the beneficial effects of expressive writing may occur, in part, by improving mindfulness.
Although there have been a number of studies of the effects of mindfulness on writing, there have been none on the effects of writing on mindfulness. In today’s Research News article “Linguistic Predictors of Mindfulness in Written Self-Disclosure Narratives.” See:
or see summary below or view the full text of the study at:
Moore and Brody examine the effects of writing on mindfulness. They recruited college students and randomly assigned them to write essays on either traumatic events in their lives or about how they spent their day and planned to spend the rest of the day. The students wrote for 20 minutes on three consecutive days. The students’ writings were analyzed for linguistic characteristics including positive emotions, negative emotions, cognitive processing words, self-references, and temporal categories of past present and future. Before writing and 4 and 8 weeks later, the students’ mindfulness was measured.
They found that mindfulness overall was not increased in either the traumatic events or daily activities writing conditions. They found that the linguistic content made a small difference, with high levels of use of cognitive processing words or present tense words associated with high levels of overall mindfulness and mindfulness subcomponents of nonjudgmental awareness and describing. They also found that high use of self-reference words was associated with low levels of the mindfulness component of observing internal and external stimuli.
These results indicate that writing in general regardless of whether it was about traumatic events or everyday occurrences did not affect overall mindfulness. This suggests that mindfulness is not the intermediary between writing and improved psychological and physical health. The results further suggest that writing thoughtfully especially about the present may slightly improve mindfulness. This makes sense as mindfulness is present moment awareness. Finally, the results suggest that writing a lot about the self tends to slightly interfere with being observant of the contents of the present moment. This again makes sense as thinking about the self involves past and future and not present experiences.
The results to some extent are disappointing as they did not clarify the mechanism by which writing improves mental and physical health. But, they do help to clarify how focusing thinking on the present and not the self affects components of mindfulness. Given that writing and mindfulness both have positive psychological and physical effects and appear to do so independently, it is possible that combining mindfulness training with expressive writing may have greater benefits than either alone.
“Poet Robert Bly once said, “If we want to create art we have to stitch together the inner world and the outer world.” Mindfulness, which is defined as paying attention to our moment-to-moment experience with nonjudgmental awareness, can do just that.” – Omega Institute
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Moore, S. D., & Brody, L. R. (2009). Linguistic Predictors of Mindfulness in Written Self-Disclosure Narratives. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 28(3), 281–296. http://doi.org/10.1177/0261927X09335264
This study investigated whether relative changes in cognitive, emotion, temporal, and self-reference word frequencies in repeated narratives predicted improvements in mindfulness skills (i.e., nonjudgmental acceptance of present-moment experiences, observing and describing present stimuli, and acting with awareness) subsequent to narrative self-disclosure. Participants wrote repeated narratives of traumatic or daily events over 3 days. Mindfulness was assessed at baseline and 4 to 8 weeks posttask. Results indicated that relative increases in cognitive processing words (among traumatic events participants and women in both conditions) and present tense words (among all participants) significantly predicted increases in nonjudgmental acceptance, describing, or overall mindfulness. Increases in present tense words appeared to partially mediate the higher mindfulness outcomes of participants writing about daily events when compared with those writing about trauma. The findings suggest that linguistic changes in self-disclosure narratives are associated with improvements in specific mindfulness skills.