Angsty folks the world over now have new cause for despair: Journaling after a breakup might not help us move on. A study found that scrawling out one’s feelings post-breakup can actually cause greater emotional distress months down the road, especially for people who already tend to overthink their relationships.
The study involved 90 previously married individuals who had divorced or separated an average of three months before the study took place. Participants completed an assessment to determine their basic emotional traits and were then asked to write in a journal for 20 minutes a day, three days in a row. The researchers assigned each participant to one of three writing groups:
- Members of one group were asked to use their writing to explore their deepest feelings about their relationship.
- A second group was asked to write about their feelings but within a narrative framework that told the story of the marriage through its beginning, middle, and end.
- The third group, which served as the control group, was asked to write about basic daily activities but to avoid journaling about emotions or opinions.
The researchers then assessed the participants’ emotional states eight months after the journaling frenzy took place. The results? Unexpectedly, the control group, who had written nothing about their post-relationship emotions, fared the best (in terms of mood) on the follow-up emotional assessment. Perhaps just as surprising: Those participants who were instructed to explore their emotions in-depth through writing (and who were most likely to ruminate and search for meaning post-breakup) had made the least progress in processing their emotions. The key was personality type: Participants who were less likely to overthink things weren't changed in any major way by their journaling, regardless of the kind of journal they kept. The implications, according to the researchers, are that folks who tend to go over and over things in their head might just intensify their distress. Rather than writing, it might be more effective for excessive ruminators to get out of their heads.
Can We Trust It?
Not necessarily. This is just one small study, which stands in contrast to a host of research pointing to the potential benefits of journaling. In addition, each of the participants had been married, meaning this was a fairly limited sample of all the worlds' potential breakup scenarios. But perhaps the most limiting element is the fact that participants only journaled for three days: Who knows how (or if) the results might have changed if participants had written for weeks or even months or represented a more diverse slice of the heartbroken population? The study's parameters also create some problems: Just because non-ruminative participants were in a better mood eight months down the road doesn't mean they absolutely did a "better" job of processing their breakup. Self-reports are also complicated, because definitions of feeling "good," "bad," or "better" may vary between individuals. And what if those who suffer more in the short term, end up having more closure or insights down the road? Still, the study is notable for bringing awareness to the fact there is no "one size fits all" approach to getting over a breakup. For some, journaling might be an effective way of processing painful emotions; for others, it might intensify an emotional spiral. We all heal in different ways. The goal is to give ourselves the space to do so.