Being in the throes of a divorce can be bad for your sense of self. It’s also not great for your heart, according to a small study recently published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.
But there’s an antidote: a practice called narrative expressive writing.
Medical experts have long explored the ways that writing heals the body and mind, from better moods to improved liver function. This new research suggests that creating a meaningful narrative of your experience can help improve your cardiovascular health after a breakup.
“To be able to create a story in a structured way — not just re-experience your emotions but make meaning out of them — allows you to process those feelings in a more physiologically adaptive way,” said Kyle Bourassa, a graduate student in the University of Arizona’s clinical psychology Ph.D. program and the study’s lead author.
How the study worked
Researchers at the University of Arizona analyzed data from 109 adults (70 women and 39 men) who had a recent marital separation. Participants were randomly divided into three groups assigned different writing exercises: traditional expressive writing, narrative expressive writing and a daily log. They were instructed to write in the designated style for 20 minutes a day for three consecutive days.
Those in the traditional expressive writing group were told to freely express their most deeply held feelings about their relationship and separation ― similar to the popular practice of journaling. Those assigned to narrative expressive writing were asked to lay out a coherent narrative about their marriage within the framework of a story that had a clear beginning, middle and end. The third group was told to write non-emotionally about their daily activities.
The participants’ cardiovascular response to stress was assessed before the writing began and then tested again in two follow-up visits. Researchers found a consistent pattern: Eight months later, compared to participants in both other groups, those who had created a coherent story about their marriage showed moderately lower heart rates overall as well as greater heart rate variability, which reflects resilience in the face of stress.
That is good news for those looking to offset the poor health outcomes linked to divorce, including sleep disturbances and a 23 percent higher mortality rate, which a growing body of research has found.
“The explicit instructions to create a narrative may provide a scaffolding for people who are going through this tough time,” said Bourassa.
The healing power of putting pen to paper
Ending a bad marriage can be critical to better life satisfaction. But the short-term stress can pose a hazard to your health.
Externalizing those anxieties and fears through narrative writing may help prevent long-term damage, said Nancy Mramor, a clinical psychologist in Pittsburgh who was not affiliated with the study.
“You grow through the process, not only because you have the chance to express yourself, but because you move forward within yourself as you write,” she said.
If something stays in my head and I keep replaying that, it kind of gnaws inside. But once I put that on the page, the gnawing is gone.
Pooja, who tried writing when her 12-year marriage ended
Take the case of Pooja, 39, who asked that her last name be withheld for reasons of privacy. Initially, she suffered bouts of nausea and sleepless nights after ending her 12-year marriage. She found herself rehashing every detail and worrying about how others would react to her divorce.
“I felt I could cry at any moment,” she recalled. “It was a mix of emotions — there was sadness, anger and fear. And those things kept bubbling to the surface depending on the day and time.”
But for the past year, she has tried a new approach: After returning from her morning walks, she dedicates time to working through her emotions by writing out her story. Putting her thoughts on paper has helped her feel more in control.
“I get to the point where if something stays in my head and I keep replaying that, it kind of gnaws inside. But once I put that on the page, the gnawing is gone,” she said. “It’s almost like I physically took it out of my head and put it on the page.”
As Pooja crafted the narrative of her experience, she was able to gain a deeper understanding of herself. Now, she said she no longer worries what others will think of the ending of her marriage.
Telling your own story
“Part of the magic of storytelling is that it helps you to come to a sense of resolution about whatever it was that happened,” said Emily Esfahani Smith, author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters and an instructor in positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
“You’re taking all these disparate pieces of information and putting them together into a larger whole,” Smith said. Building that narrative helps you figure out what that experience meant to you.
Smith pointed to a series of studies by James Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin. Pennebaker found that participants who wrote about their traumatic experiences for 15 minutes a day in a structured way, reported feeling less anxious and depressed compared to those who simply vented their emotions in an angry tirade. They also benefited from better-functioning immune systems and made fewer trips to the doctor.
Storytelling can even shape your current reality, Smith said. She recommends focusing on the silver lining in your narrative to build more resilience.
“You could say, ‘I went through this divorce and I really learned something important about myself that’s going to make me have better relationships in the future,’” Smith said.
In that way, the story you tell about yourself “reinforces an identity you begin to adopt,” she added. “It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
The University of Arizona study was published online in May and in print this month.
Cindy Lamothe is a freelance journalist who writes often about science, health, parenting and social justice. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, New York Magazine, Teen Vogue, VICE and Quartz.