…The mind is most settled when there is coherence to our thoughts. We seek to resolve conflicting thoughts by remembering them and processing them. So, a dangerous cycle can develop with traumatic events. Because they are fragmented, there are constant reminders of them. But, because they are painful, we do not process them deeply. And so, we suffer the stress of remembering a painful situation without resolving the incoherence.
Research by my colleague Jamie Pennebaker and his colleagues suggests that one of the best therapies for this kind of psychological trauma is also one of the simplest: writing. He describes this procedure in a 1997 paper in Psychological Science. People are asked to spend three consecutive days writing about one or more traumatic events. They are encouraged to really explore the thoughts and emotions surrounding the event, and to tie it to relationships with significant others. In studies of this technique, people doing this writing are compared to others who write about unemotional topics like time management.
As you might expect, writing about these emotional events was very difficult for people. They did not enjoy the experience, and they found it painful. However, the long-term effects of this writing were fascinating. If you followed the people in these studies over time, they reported fewer illnesses, they went to the doctor less often, and they suffered fewer symptoms of depression in the future. They were less likely to miss work and school, and their performance at work went up. These effects lasted for months and years after writing.