Expressive Writing/Emotional Disclosure/Journaling

Expressive Writing/Emotional Disclosure/Journaling

PEP Topic 
Fatigue
Description 

Expressive writing/journaling is the art of putting thoughts and feelings on paper. Writing about negative emotional experiences may improve physical and psychological health, and writing about deep feeling regarding personal stressors can enhance well-being and health. Expressive writing as a form of emotional disclosure has been examined in fatigue and depression and may have relevance for pain, sleep-wake disturbances, anxiety, and caregiver strain and burden. Individuals may be counseled to write specifically about thoughts and feelings, or some other aspect of their experience.

Effectiveness Not Established

Research Evidence Summaries

de Moor, C., Sterner, J., Hall, M., Warneke, C., Gilani, Z., Amato, R., & Cohen, L. (2002). A pilot study of the effects of expressive writing on psychological and behavioral adjustment in patients enrolled in a phase II trial of vaccine therapy for metastatic renal cell carcinoma. Health Psychology, 21(6), 615–619.

doi: 10.1037/0278-6133.21.6.615
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Intervention Characteristics/Basic Study Process:

An expressive writing intervention involved four writing sessions. Patients were randomized to an expressive writing (EW) group in which they were instructed to write their deepest thoughts and feelings about their cancer or to a neutral writing (NW) group in which they were instructed to write about a different health behavior at each session. Writing instructions were developed from the Pennebaker and Beall model. Repeated measures at baseline, end of intervention, and 4, 6, 8, and 10 weeks later.

Sample Characteristics:

  • N = 42 (EW = 21, NW = 21)
  • AVERAGE AGE: 56.4 years
  • MALES: 85%
  • KEY DISEASE CHARACTERISTICS: Patients had newly diagnosed stage IV metastatic renal cell carcinoma and were participating in a phase II vaccine trial. Of the participants, 76% had metastases and 76% had no lung involvement.
  • OTHER KEY SAMPLE CHARACTERISTICS: Patients were four to six weeks post-operation.

Setting:

It is implied that the setting is outpatient, in which patients are participating in a phase II clinical trial using vaccine therapy.

Phase of Care and Clinical Applications:

  • PHASE OF CARE: Active treatment

Study Design:

  • Pilot study
  • Randomized controlled trial  

Measurement Instruments/Methods:

  • Profile of Mood States (POMS)

Results:

There was 86% and 81% adherence with each group. No differences in the POMS fatigue subscale were found; the POMS vigor subscale was significantly higher in the EW group.

Limitations:

  • Sample size was small.
  • Generalizability is questionable due to the nature of illness.
  • Follow-up scores were averaged over multiple measures.
  • Space for the writing to occur is required prior to the injection.

Lu, Q., Zheng, D., Young, L., Kagawa-Singer, M., & Loh, A. (2012). A pilot study of expressive writing intervention among Chinese-speaking breast cancer survivors. Health Psychology, 31, 548–551.

doi: 10.1037/a0026834
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Study Purpose:

To test the feasibility, cultural sensitivity, and effect of an expressive writing intervention.

Intervention Characteristics/Basic Study Process:

Patients completed baseline assessments by mail and received three envelopes that were to be opened according to labels for study week. They were asked to write about their deepest feelings about having cancer and about the strategies they used for coping. They were to write for 20 minutes each week. After the last writing assignment and three and six months later they completed study questionnaires by mail. Focus group interviews were also conducted.

Sample Characteristics:

  • The sample was comprised of 19 women.   
  • Mean age was 54 years (range 31–83).
  • Patients had stage I and II breast cancer. 
  • Mean time since diagnosis was two years.
  • Patients has been in the United States an average of 19 years.
  • Most patients had a household income of less than $15,000, and more than 90% had a high school education.

Study Design:

 The study used a quasiexperimental, pre-/post repeated measures design.

Measurement Instruments/Methods:

  • Functional Assessment of Cancer Therapy–Breast (FACT-B)
  • Physical symptoms checklist
  • Positive and Negative Affect Score (PANAS)
  • Posttraumatic Growth Inventory (PTGI)
     

Results:

At three months, the change in fatigue showed a partial eta2 of 0.066, and eta2 for posttraumatic stress was 0.208. There was 100% compliance in completing writing assignments. Patients commented that the activity was meaningful for Chinese women.

Conclusions:

 Findings suggested that expressive writing is a feasible and acceptable intervention for Chinese American women.

Limitations:

  • The study had a small sample size, with less than 30 patients.
  • The study had risks of bias due to no control group, no blinding, no random assignment, and the sample characteristics.*
  • Unintended interventions or applicable interventions not described would have influenced the results.
  • Outcomes reporting was selective.
  • Patient withdrawals were 10% or greater.
  • * The activity may not be acceptable to other cultural groups or to men. There was a 15% drop-out rate, suggesting that not all women appreciated the approach. The authors provided no confidence intervals for the statistics reported. Repeated measures may have given testing threat to validity.

Nursing Implications:

Expressive writing appeared to be an acceptable intervention for these women. The study design and sample size did not allow for any firm conclusions about effects to be drawn.

Mosher, C. E., Duhamel, K. N., Lam, J., Dickler, M., Li, Y., Massie, M. J., & Norton, L. (2012). Randomised trial of expressive writing for distressed metastatic breast cancer patients. Psychology and Health, 27, 88–100.

doi: 10.1080/08870446.2010.551212
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Study Purpose:

To examine the health effects—on existential and psychological well-being, fatigue, and sleep—of writing about the deepest cancer-related thoughts and feelings in patients with advanced breast cancer.

Intervention Characteristics/Basic Study Process:

  • By telephone, one week after the screening assessment, investigators conducted a baseline interview of patients who met the criteria. Investigators obtained consents.
  • At random, a computer assigned patients to the expressive writing or neutral writing group. Patients were stratified by ethnicity and age.
  • Patients received four sets of writing instructions, lined paper, forms for rating the essays, and envelopes for returning the materials by postal mail.
  • Study design called for each patient to complete four writing sessions over a period of four to seven weeks, with instructions for each session provided by telephone by the study staff. Intervention and control groups were to begin writing immediately after the instruction telephone call. All patients were to write for 20 minutes continuously. At the 20-minute mark, a telephone call from staff collected patients' assessments of the quality of the writing time; adjustments were made for interruptions. Staff told patients to rate their essays on a scale of one to seven and asked patients to mail their essays to the investigators.

Sample Characteristics:

  • The study reported a sample of 86 females with stage IV breast cancer.
  • Mean age was 57.4 years (standard deviation [SD] = 12.5 years) in the expressive writing group and 58.5 years (SD = 11.7 years) in  the neutral writing group.
  • Patients were included if they had clinically elevated distress, as indicated by scores greater than four on the Distress Thermometer, were fluent in English, and were 18 years or older.
  • Patients were excluded from the study if they had severe cognitive impairment, as assessed by the Short Portable Mental Status Questionnaire, or if they were already engaged in expressive writing on a daily basis.
  • Average range of time since diagnosis was 4.2 to 4.7 years in the expressive writing group and 3 to 3.5 years in the neutral writing group. Most patients had received chemotherapy or hormone therapy.
  • Of the patients in the expressive writing group, 40.9% were using mental health services at baseline.

Setting:

  • Single site
  • Outpatient setting
  • Comprehensive cancer center in New York City

Phase of Care and Clinical Applications:

  • Patients were undergoing the active treatment phase of care.
  • The study has clinical applicability for late effects and survivorship and end-of-life and palliative care.

Study Design:

The study was a randomized trial, with interviewers blinded in regard to the group they were interviewing.

Measurement Instruments/Methods:

  • Meaning/Peace subscale of the Functional Assessment of Chronic Illness Therapy (FACIT)–Spiritual Well-Being Scale, to assess existential well-being. This measure reflected patients’ degree of purpose in life and inner peace.
  • A measure of demoralization, or existential despair and distress
  • Distress Thermometer, to measure psychological well-being and general distress
  • Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression (CESD) Scale, to assess symptoms of depression
  • Anxiety subscale of the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS), to measure anxiety
  • Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI), to measure habitual sleep disturbance and fatigue over one month. This study used the total global sleep-quality score.
  • Fatigue subscale of the FACIT, to measure fatigue during the past seven days 
  • Australia-modified Karnofsky Performance Status (KPS) Score, to measure sociodemographic and medical variables and functional impairment at baseline. Trained interviewers administered this instrument.
  • Manipulation check and essay ratings, gathered by an independent rater blinded to the group assignment, to assess the writing instructions for each essay
  • Seven-point scale, used by each patient, to rate how personal the patient's essays were and how much essays revealed of emotions
  • Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, a computerized text-analysis program, to report the percentage of position and negative-emotion words in each essay

Results:

In this sample, expressive writing—compared to neutral writing—did not result in better existential and psychological well-being, reduced fatigue, or enhanced sleep quality. Although both writing groups showed little change in their distress over time, during the study, patients in the expressive writing group reported more than double the rate of mental health service use than did patients in the neutral writing group.

Conclusions:

Expressive writing may have increased patients’ awareness of their distress and challenging circumstances, prompting the patients to seek mental health services. Further research is needed.

Limitations:

  • The study had a small sample size, with less than 100 patients.
  • Patients who were younger and closer to diagnosis were more likely to participate; however, these response biases were relatively small.
  • Whether results are generalizable to men and patients with diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds are points that warrant examination.
  • The study relied on self-reported outcome measures administered at one follow-up assessment.

Nursing Implications:

Expressive writing may increase use of psychological support services by distressed patients, without increasing symptom severity. Expressive writing may help keep patients in touch with their emotions, whether negative or positive. When patients are in touch with their emotions, they may be more likely to reach out for help, if they recognize negative emotions that they are not resolving on their own. However, this intervention did not result in differences in patient symptoms or outcomes.

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