Last updated on 9th February 2012
I wrote yesterday about "Therapeutic writing & speaking: inspiration from values (background information)". Today's post looks more at how-to-do-it details. Self-affirmation research describes a number of effective ways to reduce stress, clarify thinking, and boost effectiveness. If the affirmation exercise is being done in response to a particular stress or threat, it's sensible to choose a subject to write (or speak) about that is of real personal importance but that is different from the area that's being threatened. Happily several other writing research studies suggest additional ways of making this type of exercise even more helpful. So a standard set of self-affirmation instructions might well involve asking participants to choose a particularly important personal value (for example, kindness, courage, humour, etc.) or life area/role (for example, parent, partner, friend, worker, artist, sports person, etc.) and then to write for 10 minutes about why the value or area/role is so crucial for them and to describe a time in their life when this value/area/role was particularly important. They would then be asked to repeat this exercise about the same or a different important value/area/role a few days later.
As I've said there are a series of other research studies highlighting ways of making this kind of affirmation exercise more flexible, more effective, and possibly even more fun! I'll make additional suggestions about four points: 1.) The "mechanics" of the writing (or speaking) - duration, repetition & frequency. 2.) Lessons from work on Intensely Positive Experiences & Best Possible Selves. 3.) Support from "Helpful Selves/Others" & Reappraisal. 4.) Application options from studies involving Body Posture, Reminders, the Arts & Implementation Intentions.
So firstly 1.) The mechanics of the writing (or speaking) - duration, repetition & frequency: Most therapeutic writing research has requested participants to write for 15 to 20 minutes on 3 or 4 occasions spread out over several days. Since there are so many studies showing that this writing format produces benefits lasting many months, it's a sensible standard approach to use (even though the research has largely been on trauma-focused expressive writing). However it is perfectly possible to explore writing for shorter or longer periods of time - with even just 2 minutes of writing done on a couple of occasions appearing to produce benefits measurable a month or so later (Burton and King 2008). And there is also a study (Chung and Pennebaker 2008) which compared writing for 15 minutes on three occasions each separated by a 10 minute break (1-hour condition), a 35 minute break (3-hour condition), or 24 hour break (3-day condition). The authors reported that "The three emotional writing conditions did not vary in terms of their engagement with writing, their emotional reactions, short- or long-term reactions to the intervention. Compared to controls, those in the experimental conditions evidenced fewer symptom reports 9 months after writing" and they concluded that "The findings suggest that a brief 1-hour EW (expressive writing intervention) is more emotionally demanding, but that it has comparable effects on physical symptoms as the traditional 3-day method." Finally, there is work as well showing that speaking out loud can be as effective as writing (Pennebaker, Hughes et al. 1987; Murray and Segal 1994) - either into a recording device or to another person (although this assumes one feels OK about being deeply open & honest with one's listener).
2.) Lessons from work on Intensely Positive Experiences (IPE) & Best Possible Selves (BPS): I have already described benefits of this kind of "positive focus" writing - see the posts on "Past, present & future imagery" and "Writing - positive pasts & best futures". So in the IPE exercise (Burton and King 2004), subjects wrote for 20 minutes on three consecutive days following instructions to: "Think of the most wonderful experience or experiences in your life ... Choose one such experience or moment. Try to imagine yourself at that moment, including all the feelings and emotions associated with the experience. Now write about the experience in as much detail as possible trying to include the feelings, thoughts, and emotions that were present at the time. Please try your best to re-experience the emotions involved. (On the second and third days of writing, these instructions included the sentence, ‘'You may either write about the same experience as yesterday, or you may choose a new one.'')." Benefits from this exercise were still measurable many weeks later. Further research suggests that this IPE focus is likely to be optimised if the chosen memory is visualised in first person field view (as if looking out through one's own eyes on the scene) and the focus is particularly on visual, sensory & emotional details rather than just verbal descriptions. And the relevance of this to affirmation writing? Well the affirmation instructions often suggest writing about why a value/area/role is so central in one's life and then describing a time when this value/area/role was particularly important. The obvious option is to treat this memory request as an opportunity to add a field view, imagery/senses/emotionally rich IPE style "reliving" description. For subsequent episodes of affirmation writing one could choose the same or new key relevant memories to describe and relive/re-experience.
The Best Possible Selves (BPS) research potentially adds a further layer to the affirmation writing (or speaking). So the standard instruction (King 2001) runs "Think about your life in the future. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of all of your life dreams. Now, write about what you imagined." In a replication study (Sheldon and Lyubomirsky 2006) the instructions were successfully extended as follows: "You have been ... assigned to think about your best possible self now, and during the next few weeks. ‘Think about your best possible self' means that you imagine yourself in the future, after everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of your life dreams, and of your own best potentials. In all of these cases you are identifying the best possible way that things might turn out in your life, in order to help guide your decisions now. You may not have thought about yourself in this way before, but research suggests that doing so can have a strong positive effect on your mood and life satisfaction. So, we'd like to ask you to continue thinking in this way over the next few weeks, following up on the initial writing that you're about to do." So the additional layer that the BPS research can add to affirmation writing is the suggestion that, after using one or two writing episodes to describe why a value/area/role is so personally important (and adding a couple of IPE style reliving descriptions), one goes on to imagine oneself in the future when everything has gone as well as it possibly could with this value/area/role. One has worked hard to develop and live this value/area/role as well as one could and one has succeeded absolutely as much as one could have possibly hoped for. Now describe this wonderful future. It's likely again to be helpful to imagine it with a field view, visually/senses/emotionally rich description.
3.) Support from "Helpful Selves/Others" & Reappraisal. So this support suggestion links with the blog post "Boosting self-compassion & self-encouragement ... " and the reappraisal idea with the post "Reappraising reappraisal". Once one realises the potential value of these additional ideas, then it's really about being creative/experimental in incorporating them into the writing.
4.) Application options from studies involving Body Posture, Reminders, the Arts & Implementation Intentions. For body posture ideas see the three blog posts on "Embodied cognition". For reminders, see the reminder dots ideas in "Autogenic training, session 6" and to help keep on track, see details on implementation intentions some way down the page "Wellbeing, time management & self-determination".
See too the next post "Therapeutic writing & speaking: inspiration from values (instructions)".