The NYT just reported on a study published in JAMA Psychiatry showing that writing to process trauma is just as effective as the more commonly-used prolonged exposure method.
In the study, the dropout rate was three times higher for the prolonged exposure arm than the writing arm. That makes sense because prolonged exposure is hard. The same research team showed in 2018 that writing is also as effective as cognitive processing therapy, another first-line treatment for trauma.
This study confirms something I see in my own work with clients — writing allows people to encounter difficult material in a slower, easier way, as well as for shorter blocks of time.
We can move this finding out of the arena of clinical treatment for PTSD and apply it to resolving all kinds of normal life predicaments. Writing can help us make sense of a challenging situation, make a tough decision, grieve a loss, or cultivate insight into our needs and wants.
Writing can be a more leisurely, contemplative way to approach material we might otherwise avoid. A little writing also goes a long way, which is why I think the study found comparable results in 30 minutes of writing as for 90 minutes of prolonged exposure.
Writing has the additional benefit of producing a tangible record that we can return to again and again. Sometimes the biggest insights and leaps forward happen in re-reading what we’ve written on a different day, as well as from looking for themes and habits of the mind that emerge from re-visiting collections of our writing over time.
When we share our writing with others — a trusted friend, advisor, therapist, or even an imagined audience — we enhance the benefit that comes from writing on our own.