How to get over a divorce without breaking your heart? American researchers advise spending 20 minutes a day of expressive writing in a journal, thus lowering your heart rate and enabling you to better manage the emotional side of the separation.
Looking beyond the psychological benefits of letting it all out in writing, a recent study by the University of Arizona in the US sought to evaluate the impact of expressive writing on the physical health of recently-divorced adults by analyzing cardiovascular biomarkers.
A group of 109 adults who had separated or divorced during the previous three months were asked to take part in a writing experiment and were assessed three times over an average period of 7.5 months. A first group spent 20 minutes per day putting down on paper all their emotions about their relationship and separation. A second group did the same thing, except that they put these feelings into a narrative account, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. A third group was asked to write non-emotionally about their daily activities.
Eight months later, the results showed that compared to the other two groups, the participants in the narrative expressive writing group had a lower heart rate and a higher heart rate variability (variation in time between heartbeats) both at rest and when exposed to external stressors such as a math exercise or recalling their divorce.
The longer the time between heartbeats, the better the operation of the autonomic nervous system which manages the heart’s reaction to tiredness.
“We know that changes in the heart rate and heart rate variability can affect health and even disease outcomes over time, and our study provides causal evidence that specific styles of writing can alter these physiological processes,” explained Kyle Bourassa, the study’s author.
“The explicit instructions to create a narrative may provide a scaffolding for people who are going through this tough time ... and help 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.”
The report notes that positive or adaptive changes in physiology can be observed in people who say they’re not doing well at the time of their divorce.
Previous research has shown that ruminators who spend a lot of time going back over their failed relationship tend to experience more psychological distress when they undertake free writing exercises, with no formal structure.
The findings were published in the journal ‘Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine’.
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