Category: Treatment - CBT

PS4- #A9 - Effects of Expressive Writing on Mental Health Symptoms in College Freshmen: Symptom Trajectories

Friday, Nov 17
12:15 PM – 1:15 PM
Location: Indigo Ballroom CDGH, Level 2, Indigo Level

Keywords: Adult Depression | Treatment-CBT | College Students

Expressive writing has been used as a method of treatment for both physical and mental health problems. Expressive writing about traumatic life events can lead to long-term benefits in physical health, including decreased blood pressure and fewer clinical check ups (Pennebaker & Beall, 1986). Recent research has shown that expressive writing also yields psychological benefits such as greater attendance at work, altered social and language capabilities and increased ability to express complicated emotions during the grieving process (Balkie & Wilhelm, 2005; Litchenthal & Cruess, 2010). 

 While much is known about the general effectiveness of expressive writing, less is known about how symptoms change both within sessions and between sessions of expressive writing.  The current study aims to increase our understanding of how expressive writing works by (a) assessing changes in symptoms within-session (immediately preceding and following expressive writing intervention), (b) assessing changes in symptoms between sessions, and (c) assessing these changes for both participants assigned to the expressive intervention as well as the participants assigned to the control condition.


 In this experiment, freshmen participants first completed the Positive and Negative Affect Scale (PANAS). They then completed a twenty-minute writing task.  Those randomly assigned to the experimental group were asked to write expressively about their deepest feelings about coming to college.  Those randomly assigned to the control group were asked to write passively about any object or event of their choosing. Immediately following the writing task, participants were asked to complete the PANAS scale again.  These procedures were completed each day for three consecutive days.  It was hypothesized that participants in the expressive writing condition would demonstrate a general linear decrease in symptom change, as most research indicates expressive writing serves to lessen symptoms of negative affect.  It was also hypothesized that those participants in the control condition would demonstrate no improvement in their symptoms, given that the intervention was not aimed at symptom reduction.


 Results of the study indicated a trend (p=.08) related to the interaction between symptom change over time and experimental condition (expressive writing group vs. control group).  Participants in the expressive writing condition demonstrated a relatively linear decrease in symptoms over time, while those in the control group demonstrated a sawtooth pattern of symptom change.  The control group demonstrated decreases in inter-session symptoms, but these symptoms then rebounded prior to the next session.  Clinical implications and future directions are discussed.

Sarah Robertson

Associate Professor
College of Charleston
Charleston, South Carolina

Monica Connelly

College of Charleston

Catherine Yetman

College of Charleston