Journaling to Better Psychological Health

Students explore real-world psychology problems in new lab.

Growing up, Julia Boehm ’03 knew that writing in a journal made her feel better when she was homesick at camp or distressed after a fight with her stepmom. What she didn’t know was that psychologists had established that writing about traumatic events improves certain health indicators, and that as a college student she would try to find out why.

As one of 15 student members of the Behavioral Health and Social (BHS) Psychology Lab of Brian and Jerusha Detweiler-Bedell, assistant professors of psychology, Boehm is engaged in an unusually rich and innovatively structured research experience that lets undergraduates play significant roles in sophisticated scientific inquiries.

Through the BHS Lab, which they launched soon after joining the College in fall 2001, the Detweiler-Bedells hope to further their own scholarly interests as well as provide research opportunities for as many students as possible.

Their eagerness to take on student collaborators comes from their own college days, when working side by side with professors kindled a passion for psychology. “It was the research we did as undergraduates that shaped our careers,” says Jerusha. “Not necessarily the content of it, but the spirit. Our mentors’ enthusiasm was contagious, and we imagined passing that enthusiasm on to our own students one day.” 

To share their zeal with more than the one or two assistants typically involved in faculty research, Brian and Jerusha devised a more inclusive arrangement. They assembled teams made up of three students each: one advanced psychology major (team leader), one sophomore or junior psychology major (team associate), and one student new to psychology (team assistant). Ideally, students progress from novice researcher to team leader over the course of their college careers. Brian and Jerusha believe this “management-consulting model” enables undergraduates to partake in a caliber of research project usually reserved for graduate students.

At first, the Detweiler-Bedells weren’t certain whether students would sign up for what Brian calls a “rigorous extracurricular.” (Students selected to participate in the noncredit lab sign a letter acknowledging that they are expected to devote 8 to 15 hours a week on their project, depending on their role.) But many students leapt at the chance to perform real-world research that would increase their odds of gaining acceptance into a highly competitive graduate program. (In fact, Alexa Reynolds ’03, a lab participant, was recently notified that she will receive a full scholarship to Harvard University to study social psychology.) Others were simply intrigued by the opportunity to learn psychology from hands-on research, or enticed by one of the six projects currently under way. They include investigations into how emotional intelligence influences social behavior, and how in-the-moment and anticipated emotions impact decision making. “Students seemed to crave a firsthand experience of what psychologists actually do,” says Jerusha. 

One of those students was Boehm, a 21-year-old from Davis, California, who was drawn to the journaling study because of its relevance and potential application. Researchers have already established that writing about traumatic events leads to significant health benefits, including better immunological functioning, reduced absenteeism from work or school, and fewer visits to the doctor. “The question remaining is why,” says Brian. “What changes inside the person that triggers such a positive outcome?” Finding the answer would help determine the most effective way to come to terms with a traumatic event, leading to more powerful interventions.

In early 2002, the Detweiler-Bedells hypothesized that journaling about a painful event improves a person’s well-being not because writing helps people distance themselves from the trauma, but rather because writing helps people integrate the trauma into their sense of self. As Jerusha explains, “If you can identify with an event within yourself, it may not trouble you as much; therefore, your body is no longer in a stressful state of arousal.”

To test their theory, Jerusha and the student team devised an experiment that examined whether explicit and implicit attitudes about traumatic events change as a result of writing about them. Nearly 30 Lewis & Clark students participated. The experimental group journaled three times about a traumatic event, while the control group wrote about a mundane event.

Before and after the journaling, participants were asked explicitly: to what extent is the traumatic event a defining characteristic of you as a person? They were also asked this using the Implicit Association Task, a computerized test used by psychologists to examine thoughts and feelings that exist either outside of conscious awareness or outside of conscious control. In this case, the test linked triumphant/traumatic words with me/not me words to see whether students who had journaled about their traumatic event underwent unconscious changes, enabling them to more fully incorporate the event into their self-concept.

The team’s hierarchical structure allows students to clearly define their roles, ease into the projects, and learn from their peers. Boehm, the team leader, programmed the computer-based test, organized the participant schedule, and worked with Jerusha to analyze the results. Team associate Anisa Goforth ’04 reviewed written materials, sent e-mail confirmations to participants, and handled other tasks delegated by Boehm. The team assistant, Talia Ullmann ’05, helped phrase participant instructions, draft the initial questionnaire, and conduct the experimental sessions. Each team member shared responsibility for digging up past studies that helped direct their collaborative inquiry. “It’s such a straightforward way to get into something without being overwhelmed and with someone to guide you along the way,” says Ullmann.

Preliminary results support the Detweiler-Bedells’ hypothesis. Among female study participants in particular, those who wrote about their traumas showed stronger explicit and implicit associations between their self and the traumatic event as compared to the control group. “That is, women in the experimental group reported that the traumatic event defined them more as a person after journaling,” explains Boehm.

Other findings were that participants in the experimental group reported being significantly more sick than the control group, including during the week of the experiment, results that suggest journaling can be difficult in the short term. However, participants in the experimental group also reported that they were more likely to write about their trauma in the future and, notably, they perceived their traumas to be more positive after writing about them—a finding consistent with the idea that journaling has long-term benefits.

In early February, the three team members and the Detweiler-Bedells flew to Los Angeles to present a poster detailing their findings at the 2003 Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference, the major convention in the two fields. The students didn’t encounter any other undergraduates during their three-day stay, and relished the rare opportunity to hear about yet-to-be-published studies and share elevators with prominent psychologists whose names they recognized from their research. “I loved the constant intellectual stimulation,” says Goforth, who also spent May reading days at another psychology conference in Vancouver, B.C., with eight other BHS Lab members.

Just before the February conference, Boehm began independent work on her honors thesis while the other team members moved up a slot and welcomed Kerry Balaam ’06. In Brian and Jerusha’s model, Balaam is the prototypical team assistant: a first-year student who hasn’t decided on a major, she was attracted to the project because it combines her interest in language and psychology, and complements her Introduction to Psychology class. “This gives me a glimpse into what I would do as a psych major,” says Balaam, as well as insight into the life of an academic researcher.

Boehm’s thesis project entailed guiding 70 participants through another journaling study, this time with a different set of writing instructions to try to distinguish “ruminators”—those who think repetitively, circularly, and passively about a trauma—from those who have a natural ability to think more clearly about a situation. Writing about a traumatic event, she figures, should help facilitate the coping process for a high-clarity individual, but simply prolong it for someone who finds it difficult to obtain clarity. She is analyzing whether people in this latter group benefit from journaling instructions that specifically tell the participant to “obtain clarity” and “make sense of their emotions” regarding a traumatic event.

After brainstorming sessions and more reviews of past research, the journaling team decided to pick up on Boehm’s initial findings by delving more deeply into the question of whether more explicit instructions help people better identify with their traumatic event. The Detweiler-Bedells concurred with their focus. “As our students progress, they help us ask the right questions,” says Brian. “They truly have as much influence as we do in determining what the next step should be.”

That’s precisely the kind of collaborative spirit that led the Detweiler-Bedells to chart careers in psychology, and why plenty of their BHS Lab students will follow in their footsteps.

Dan Sadowsky is a freelance writer in Portland.