We have been told our entire lives that, one day, we will meet the love of our life, get married, settle down, and be happy. While this is the reality for some, at least half of all married couples in the United States get divorced, something that wasn’t a part of the narrative we were told. Going through a divorce can be an extremely stressful and sad experience that not only has an impact on mental well-being but also on our physical health. While it may seem difficult to get past such a trauma, new research from the University of Arizona suggests that journaling after your divorce can improve your cardiovascular health.
Divorces can be a challenging time for all parties involved. Filing paperwork, meeting lawyers, and even deciding who has custody of dependents can cause serious stress. The following are just some of the negative health effects that divorce can have:
Anxiety: Having your world flipped upside down can create a large amount of mental stress, leading to feelings of worry and uneasiness.
Changes in weight: Fluctuating weight can be a symptom of a recent divorce, but ultimately results from increased stress levels. Your body will try to cope with the emotional pain by convincing you to overindulge in junk food.
Metabolic syndrome: This is a condition comprised of high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar, excess belly fat, and high cholesterol that increases your risk of developing heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Previous research has linked this metabolic condition to divorced women as well as women who are widowed or in unhappy marriages.
Cardiovascular disease: Previous studies have found that middle-aged men and women are at a higher risk of developing disorders of the heart. Researchers believe that the stress from divorce leads to higher levels of inflammation, especially in women, leading to cardiovascular problems.
The study in question involved 109 separated or divorced men and women who had split from their partners on average three months prior. They were then randomly divided into three groups. Each group was assigned various topics to write about in a journal, which included traditional writing—expressive writing about their most deeply held feelings; narrative expression—writing how they are feeling about their divorce in the form of a story with a beginning, middle, and end; and the last group was simply asked to write non-emotionally about their day to day activities. Each participant wrote for 20 minutes a day for three consecutive days, with researchers conducting assignments beforehand in order to gain a baseline prior to journaling. Follow-up visits were scheduled with each participant.
About eight months later, those who had written in the narrative expression group were seen to have a lower heart rate than participants in the other two groups. They also had higher heart rate variability—variation time between heartbeats reflecting the body’s’ ability to adaptively respond to its environment and stressors.
“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,” said Kyle Bourassa, the paper’s lead author and a psychology doctoral student at the UA.
Bourassa says that this type of writing structure can help people gain an understanding of their experience that allows them to move forward, and not simply re-experience the same negative emotion again and again.
“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,” said Bourassa, whose co-authors on the paper were UA Department of Psychology faculty members Sbarra, John Allen, and Matthias Mehl.
Despite the outcome of the study, the researchers stress that only causal evidence was gained and that more research would be needed to fully explore this relationship.