Human beings love a good story. We’re wired to connect emotionally with stories, and as it turns out, the way you write your divorce story can have a big impact on your health.
Research has found that keeping a journal after a divorce can improve your cardiovascular health, but only if you write a story, not just a list of your feelings. The findings come from a study of 109 separated or divorced men and women who split from their partners about three months, on average, before the start of the research.
Participants were divided randomly into three groups. Those assigned to the traditional expressive writing group were told to write about their most deeply held feelings about their relationship and separation experience.
Those in the narrative expressive writing group also were told to write about their feelings about the divorce, but within the framework of a narrative with a definite beginning, middle, and end—essentially telling the story of the end of their marriage.
A third group was simply asked to write non-emotionally about their day-to-day activities during the assigned writing period.
Participants in all three groups were instructed to write in their designated style for 20 minutes a day for three consecutive days. The participants’ physical and psychological health were assessed at baseline—prior to their journaling—and at two follow-up visits.
At the second follow-up visit, about eight months later, participants who had engaged in narrative expressive writing had a lower heart rate than participants in the other two groups. They also had higher heart rate variability, which refers to the variation in time between heartbeats and reflects the body’s ability to adaptively respond to its environment and environmental stressors.
Both lower heart rate and higher heart rate variability are generally associated with good health. So what makes narrative expressive writing good for the heart?
“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,” says Kyle Bourassa, a psychology doctoral student at the University of Arizona and lead author of the study in Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine.
“The explicit instructions to create a narrative may provide a scaffolding for people who are going through this tough time,” Bourassa says. “This structure can help people gain an understanding of their experience that allows them to move forward, rather than simply spinning and re-experiencing the same negative emotions over and over.”
Participants in the narrative expressive writing group had lower heart rate and higher heart rate variability, relative to participants in the two other groups, across a variety of study conditions — at their normal resting state, as well as when presented by experimenters with external stressors, such as reminders of their divorce or a stressful math task.
A previous paper, by David Sbarra, professor of psychology, detailed those findings, revealed that both styles of expressive writing can actually result in more psychological distress for people who self-identify as “high ruminators”—those who spend a lot of time brooding over the circumstances of their failed relationship.
In the current study, Bourassa set out to reanalyze the data using the markers of cardiovascular physiology, rather than participants’ self-reported psychological well-being.
“Psychology and physiology don’t always hang together, so you can have people who say they’re not doing well in terms of their self-reported mood, while at the same time observing positive or adaptive changes in their physiology,” Bourassa says.
The new findings add to a growing body of research on divorce and health, and have significant implications since marital separation often is linked with poor overall health.
Writing Your Divorce Story
Before you dismiss the idea that you have the power to write your way back to good health as you recover from the pain of divorce, remember that the human brain is wired to connect with stories. As Dr. Jim Loehr, author of The Power of Story: Rewrite Your Destiny in Business and in Life, has said:
Stories impose meaning on the chaos; they organize and give context to our sensory experiences, which might otherwise seem like a fairly colorless sequences of facts. Facts are meaningless until you create a story around them. For example, losing your wallet or being in a car accident is what factually happened, but the meaning or significance that you give to the lost wallet or the car accident is the theme of your story, for example, ‘I’m a careless person,’ or ‘Bad things happen to me.’
At this point, you may be thinking, “But that’s not true! I can’t control what happens in my divorce.” To a certain extent, of course, you are right. You can’t control your spouse, or how the judge might rule in your case, or other family members. There is only one thing you can control: you.
You have the power to choose how you handle whatever divorce throws at you. The bottom line is that the choices you make, in large part, control the experience you are going to get. Even those experiences that you can’t control, you can choose how to react to them. In other words, you create your divorce story based upon the meaning you give to the facts that happen.