The Event-Specific Benefits of Writing About a Difficult Life Experience


  • Charles Matthew Stapleton Orcid
  • Hui Zhang Orcid
  • Jeffrey Berman


Previous research demonstrates that writing about life’s difficult moments benefits the writer cognitively and emotionally. However, it is unclear whether the benefits of writing are specific to the event written about or whether the benefits are global. This study was designed to address this issue. Participants were 120 undergraduate students who had experienced at least two difficult life events. Participants were randomly assigned into experimental and control groups. Experimental participants wrote about one of these difficult events and control participants wrote about an interesting life event of their choosing. Experimental participants reported their positive and negative emotions as well as their cognitive avoidance and intrusion concerning the event written about and another event not written about. Control participants reported their emotions and cognitions concerning two difficult life events. All participants also reported their general distress. These assessments were done immediately after writing and one week later. The results indicated that experimental participants were emotionally stronger, less upset, and less cognitively avoidant about the particular difficult life event they wrote about compared to an event they did not write about. Similar comparisons between ratings of a written-about and a not-written-about event were not significant for passion, fear, and cognitive intrusion. There was evidence for a possible indirect effect of writing on general distress through changes in event-specific cognitions and emotions. Discussion of these results focuses on how writing may specifically help change a writer’s feelings and thoughts about a particular situation.