Study Says Journaling Your Breakup Won’t Make It Hurt Less, Causes Dismay

Dear Journal,

I just read about a new study at the University of Arizona that aimed to measure the success of journaling one’s feelings as a coping mechanism following a breakup. As The Atlantic reported, the researchers hypothesized that “focusing creative word vomit into narrative form could help patients with the highest tendency to ruminate about the past to pull themselves together and move on following divorce.” Journal, you of all people should know that I have a tendency to ruminate, so clearly I was very interested in the findings of this study.

For three days in a row, ninety recently divorced/separated people wrote in a journal for twenty minutes a day. While some were asked to simply log their daily activities, others were told to “really let go” and dive into their deepest feelings, and the rest were asked to craft a structured narrative of their failed marriage.

via surfingwithdreads on weheartit

When the researchers followed up eight months later, they were shocked at the results: “The participants who were the most ruminative, and who ‘were judged to be actively engaged in the search for meaning,’ made the least progress in dealing with their emotions when instructed to express their emotions through writing.” The participants who simply logged their daily activities made the most emotional progress, according to the scales used in the study.

The lead author of the study, psychological scientist David Sbarra, had this to say about their findings:

“If you’re someone who tends to be totally in your head and go over and over what happened and why it happened, you need to get out of your head and just start thinking about how you’re going to put your life back together and organize your time. Some people might naively call this avoidance, but it’s not avoidance. It is just re-engagement in life, and the control writing asks people to engage in this process.”

Wait, that’s me! I am totally in my head going over and over what happened and why it happened, not just about breakups but about basically everything that occurs. Do the findings of this study apply to everything that ends, like a job or a friendship or a dream? How am I supposed to “re-engage in life” before I’ve fully processed?! Writing about feelings is re-engaging with life. I mean, what is life if not a series of feelings?

Confession: I have several journals that exist for the sole purpose of processing breakups. They are hidden in my room collecting dust because I’ve been going steady with my boo for a few years, but there are still so many other things to ruminate about. If I were to simply keep a daily log like the people in this study who were supposedly the most emotionally successful, I just don’t know what I would do with my feelings. Would they dry up like tiny feeling raisins in the sun? I’ve been told that if we don’t acknowledge our feelings, we act them out.

The thing is, Journal, even if I’m not using your pages to ruminate within, I can’t not ruminate. I have to take these feelings somewhere; they are just so enormous and consuming. If I don’t tell you about them, I will incessantly gchat my friends who have grownup jobs and thus better things to do than reassure me for the millionth time about how that one thing I said that one time actually wasn’t a big deal and no one hates me/cares. Also, I feel like journaling doesn’t have to literally be in a journal. I have a few dozen drafts to various people sitting in my email that I’ll never send but were super cathartic to write. Is this study implying that rather than spending time writing about my feelings, I should go to the grocery store? I just really don’t think that would make me feel better. I hate the grocery store.

The study weighed the emotional recovery of the participants using scales that measured “response to a traumatic event, depressive mood disturbances, and ‘loss and rediscovery of self.'” Sometimes, though, after something like a breakup, the point is that maybe you can’t rediscover yourself. Maybe you have to make a new self out of the ashes of the relationship, which is different from getting back in touch with the old pre-relationship you. The study also had a lot of pre-determined assumptions, like that eight months should be enough time to get over a failed relationship. What if the relationship lasted ten years and your heart is a hot broken mess? What if rather than trying to “get over” a relationship, someone’s goal was to integrate the loss into their daily life and grow from it?

Basically, my eyebrows are raised way, way up about all this. As you can see, Journal, I’m even having to process my feelings about what it means to process feelings. The  writer of Atlantic’s report on the study concluded, “In other words, indulging your angst only prolongs your suffering.” Maybe it’s because I’m on the first day of my period (ugh kill me), but exploring my “angst” has never felt indulgent; it has felt completely necessary. I don’t want to simply “get over” the people I’ve lost, I want to learn as much as I can from the experience and take those learnings with me into other relationships.

Thanks for listening, Journal.


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Gabrielle Korn

Gabrielle Korn is a writer living in Los Angeles with her wife and dog.

Gabrielle has written 95 articles for us.


  1. dear journal,
    i’m so glad gabrielle wrote this post because to be honest when i heard i wasn’t supposed to journal in order to be an emotionally successful person i panicked. what does one do if one doesn’t journal? sometimes i don’t journal for a long time and it makes me really upset and i write JOURNAL in big bold letters on my to do list to remind myself to write in you because when i don’t i feel like a stressed out ball of poo. sigh. i’m so glad we’re beyond “studies,” journal. you and i are in this shit for the long haul. also journal, i know i’m allergic to cats, but how freaking cute is the cat in gabrielle’s post?! gosh i hope i look that cute when i’m busy telling you all my feelings.
    i love you forever, journal. also gabrielle.

  2. It’s a little difficult to judge the study without reading the full paper, and the reportage in The Atlantic seemed biased to me. In the press release about the article, Sbarra says that journaling certainly can be beneficial, but it may not be the panacea for all emotional woes.

    Also: .

    • PS: Perhaps you could contact Sbarra and see if he’s interested in doing a study on the effects on journaling on getting over negative emotions experienced after reading about his current study?

    • I agree you’ve got to look at the original paper if you’re going to take science reporting from the popular press seriously. I just did, and I’d say the Atlantic didn’t do so bad summarizing the findings. The limitations the original paper lists are important, though, like that they had no control group that didn’t journal at all, and that the outcomes were self-reported.

  3. Okay, but did they tell certain people to simply log their daily activities and tell others to write about their feelings?

    Because I kind of feel like the people who tend to ruminate, the ones who tend to sit there and go over these things over and over and can’t let go of the past, are the same people who might need some extra time to get over a breakup. I am definitely one of those people, and I know that it takes me a long time in general to deal with any sort of rejection or disappointment. Some people can shake those thoughts, but some of us NEED journals and we NEED to get caught up in our thoughts. I need to indulge in my own sadness, or else I never get over it. It takes a long time, but eventually I start to feel okay, and regular journaling is a part of that process for me.

    So yeah, I have my eyebrows raised at this study.

  4. I’m such a ruminater. It’s ridiculous. Although I’m skeptical of their methodology and results, I have to say there’s something to be said for preventing yourself from doing the “what happened what did I do wrong” game too much. It’s like cognitive behavioral therapy, in that changing your actions and reactions to things can literally rewire your brain, and change old habits that you find problematic.

    On the other hand, you wanna reflect and learn from experiences and failures so you can grow. I’d say it’s a balancing act. Keep journaling, but maybe limit your head time a little. It’s helped me move on from things. Or maybe you don’t wanna move on, especially if you’re an artist. That pain can be useful. I did my best painting when I was miserable :)

  5. I am definitely one to ruminate in my sadness and it takes me a very long while to get over pain (ask me how long it took me to understand that I will forever have daddy issues), I made a conscious effort to *not* write in my journal because I have a tendency of reading them and getting lost in my thoughts for hours at a time. Other than one to two lines every few days or so about trying to move out and move on, my journal is scant on the details of my break-up.

    I’m still dealing with my emotions and feelings over the matter, but I think not writing them down (and ruminating further) was the best idea for me.

  6. Those psychology study scales of stuff are always a tad skeptical.
    It’s generally impossible to scientifically quantify things like feelings and emotions because:
    a) Everybody’s different
    b) Feelings don’t exist on a scale
    c) It is very difficult for only one person to decide where feelings fit on a scale which feelings are not built to fit on, so a lot of the time they’re bound to get it ‘wrong’ or miscalculate

    Self report studies are too subjective, since it’s only the judgement of the participant, and not the judgement of the trained professional leading the study.
    The people chosen for the ‘really go for it’ category might not have had the right personality types that make deep exploration of feelings effective.
    Seriously there’s a hundred ways you could evaluate and criticise every psychological study so it seems hardly viable anymore.
    Just stick to what methods help you the best, personally. Journals have helped me a lot, introspective and stream-of-consciousness writing is amazingly helpful at getting me to realise what my issues are and how/if I can get over them. You do you.

  7. If I had read about this study five years ago, i would have been right where you are Gabrielle. I was convinced that my journaling helped me process my way through my feelings through self-reflection. I thought I was being healthy.
    But something happened during my last two breakups–I started to write about my feelings and I just couldn’t even begin to explain it all. I was just done. I was tired of the relationship, tired of talking about my feelings, thinking about my feelings, and investing time in writing about my feelings. I just wanted to move forward. I didn’t write anything in my journal except for one entry, which consisted of “Fuck writing about your feelings. Go do something fucking productive.” (I might have been a bit angry…)
    Anyway, I was able to heal after that breakup much more quickly than I have in the past. And I have used the same strategy to this day. Once a relationship is over, I don’t go over it and over it in my journal. And it has helped me to do this.
    I am not saying I don’t write. Sometimes if I really feel like there are things I haven’t said to a specific person, I write a letter to that person and keep it sitting in my drafts until I am ready to delete it. But I don’t obsess and nitpick over why I feel the way I feel or why things didn’t work out the way I wanted them to. And I feel like I’m healthier for it.

    However, I understand the need to write it all down. It’s certainly better than annoying your friends with your irrational breakup thoughts. So I don’t necessarily think it’s wrong to write down all these things, depending on the person and the situation.
    I just feel like this study resonates with me and where I am in my life.

    • Where you were five years ago. I had a similar thought. Being divorced these people are probably older, so I think it would be interesting to set up a similar study and contrast it by age group. I kept a relatively faithful journal of feelings until age 26, but I would neither want or be able to that now.

      Either way, each person obviously knows what’s best for him or her and what hurts more or less. I don’t understand the point of these studies anyway, except to make people feel either smug or worse about themselves if they fall in line/outside of them.

      • That’s a thought. Maybe the older you are, the better you know your emotions and why you do what you do — and the less time you have to spend in the endless ruminative process of answering questions like,”what do I feel right now?” and “why do I feel this way?”, and “why did I do this thing?”

        You just KNOW, right off the bat, from years of experience with yourself.

  8. I definitely occasionally need to journal really intense feelings and thoughts, such as when I realized I am gay. My live-in boyfriend at the time found my hidden spot (literally the very next day after writing it) and it was a super terrible coming out experience. Still haven’t gone back to it but I was never a very dependable journal writer. Either way, it really does help with seeing through the feelings fog.

  9. Writing letters to people and never sending them can also help. Sometimes I end up showing the letter to the person weeks, months, or years later and they give me hugs.

  10. Don’t know if it helps me process my feelings efficiently, but I know for a fact that my best writing always comes from periods of the most sadness/loss/heartbreak. So….I’mma just keep journaling, ya know?

    Plus. Feelings are life. No sense in forcing them aside. Sometimes we must confront our sadness.

  11. There have been a number of studies that have found that ruminating over your feelings is more often than not a negative thing and also how focusing on something else is positive, most recently this awesome article about kids and drawing:

    The field of positive psychology offers hope for the journal lovers: use journaling as a form of finding the benefits of your current situation.

    When I do need to journal to figure out what I’m feeling why I always try to end on a positive note. Sometimes its the case of fake it till you make it, but imagining and visualizing myself in a better place has more often than not been the best way to get there.

    I also found that they’re way less embarrassing to go back and read for some reason.

  12. You do you. If you like journaling and you journal, then that might work. Because you can rant, write poetry, use positive journal writings and a whole host of other things. But there are so many other creative outlets (and non-creative ones) that fit different personalities. Maybe journaling didn’t help because some of these people might like to hike mountains to heal, and not journal. i definitely think I’m going to read the study though, because it sounds interesting and psychological studies always make me smile in one one or another. Happy journaling!!

  13. I noticed a while ago that I often felt worse after writing about my feelings… when my journal entries were along the lines of “I feel horrible because of X and Y, I feel like it means Z about me,” etc. The fact that I felt worse afterward made me unhappy… I thought writing about your feelings was always supposed to be helpful, so I was “journaling wrong.” Great, I always screw up relationships, and now I can’t even journal right! But writing about feelings does help me if I take a CBT-type approach.

  14. I’ve never been a very good journal-er. What I keep now is a little notebook of only positive things; compliments I’ve received (and remembered) and anything that happened to me that made me smile. It’s nice to just remember the good.

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