Linguistic Changes in Expressive Writing Predict Psychological Outcomes in Women With History of Childhood Sexual Abuse and Adult Sexual Dysfunction

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An expressive writing treatment was recently reported to reduce depressive symptoms and improve sexual function and satisfaction in a sample of female survivors of childhood sexual abuse (Meston, Lorenz, & Stephenson, 2013). We conducted a linguistic analysis of this data to determine whether pre- to posttreatment changes in participants’ language use were associated with the improvements in sexuality and depression. Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC), a program that counts the use of word categories within a text, was used to evaluate the impact of several word categories, previously associated with changes in mental health (Frattaroli, 2006), and shown to differ between childhood sexual abuse survivors and nonabused women (Lorenz & Meston, 2012), on treatment outcomes. A reduction in the use of the word “I” and an increase in positive emotion words were associated with decreased depression symptoms. A reduction in the use of “I” and negative emotion words were associated with improvement in sexual function and sexual satisfaction. The findings suggest that, because language may serve as an implicit measure of depression and sexual health, monitoring language changes during treatment may provide a reliable indicator of treatment response free of the biases of traditional self-report assessments.

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