It may be hard to find meaning after a difficult divorce. All we may want to do is ruminate about what happened, how we feel, and the story of our married life. But this is not helpful.
One reason, notes, David Sbarra, is that when we ruminate simply to express our feelings – what might be the suggestion of many therapists – it only serves to increase our distress. On the other hand, when we are searching for meaning, the outcome is dramatically different – and it might also be good for our heart health.
In a study of 109 individuals (70 women and 39 men) with a recent marital separation, Kyle Bourassa and colleagues from the University of Arizona randomly assigned to one of three writing exercises, performed on three occasions over several days.
One group performed a traditional expressive writing task, with instructions to write freely about their “strongest and deepest emotions.” Another group performed a narrative expressive writing task, in which they created a “coherent and organized narrative” of their separation experience – culminating in describing an end of their “divorce story.” The last group was given an emotionally neutral writing task. Then, indicators of the body’s cardiovascular responses to stress were compared before and after the writing tasks (up to 9 months after the writing).
The results were striking. Participants assigned to narrative expressive writing had a reduction in heart rate as well as an increase in heart rate variability (HRV), which measures beat-to-beat variations in heart rate and reflects better functioning of the body’s parasympathetic nervous system reactions to stimuli, including stress. As Bourassa notes, “The results suggest that the ability to create a structured narrative – not just re-experiencing emotions but making meaning out of them – allows people to process their feelings in a more adaptive way, which may in turn help improve their cardiovascular health.”
Moreover, this effect occurred after just sixty minutes of writing over the course of three days, and even more convincing was that the effects of narrative writing on these health-relevant biomarkers was independent of adults’ self-reported emotional responses about their separation.
Finding meaning lies at the heart of what stories offer. It allows us to step back, reassess, reevaluate, recalibrate, and ultimately understand the why behind the things that have happened to us. And as Nietzsche famously said, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”