Dispositional emotion coping styles and physiological responses to expressive writing

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Abstract

Objectives

The purpose of these two studies was to assess how repressors and defensive, high-anxious individuals exhibit their psychological and health characteristics subjectively through self-reports and objectively through physiological markers and ratings of emotional expression.

Design

Cross-sectional descriptive design (study one) and randomized controlled design (study two).

Methods

In the first descriptive study, repressors, defensive, high-anxious individuals and low-anxious individuals were identified from a pool of 748 undergraduates. Participants were asked to complete questionnaires assessing psychological and health characteristics. In the second experimental study, the three groups were randomized into either emotional or non-emotional writing conditions. Participants were asked to write three essays on either an emotional or a non-emotional topic in a single day.

Results

In the first study, defensive, high-anxious individuals reported significantly more distress, symptoms, sickness behaviours and difficulty expressing anger relative to repressors. In the second study, there was a significant difference in salivary cortisol concentrations between the two writing conditions regardless of the emotional coping grouping. Analysis of the writing showed no significant differences among repressors, defensive, high-anxious and low-anxious individuals in their cognitive and affective expression.

Conclusions

Whereas self-reports of health outcomes and psychological traits clearly distinguish repressors and defensive, high-anxious individuals, more objective indices of emotional expressiveness and physiology do not appear to do so. The results also indicate that expressive writing may be helpful to reduce physiological arousal towards emotionally charged memories.

Statement of contribution

What is already known on this subject? Emotion inhibition and Health: Emotional inhibition is associated with aversive health. Little previous work has differentiated emotional inhibition due to repression or suppression. Emotion expression and Health: Expressing emotions through expressive writing may be salutary. Little is known about the physiological basis to explain all the health-relevant changes following expressive writing. A moderating role of dispositional emotional expressiveness in the context of expressive writing is inconclusive.

Statement of contribution

What does this study add? Unlike repression, suppression (defensive, high-anxious) was associated with poor self-reported health. There was a greater reduction of cortisol response while writing emotionally compared with writing non-emotionally. Repressors and suppressive (defensive, high-anxious) individuals were distinctive on self-reported health, but were similar in objective endocrine responses to expressive writing.

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