The benefits of expressive writing on overgeneral memory and depressive symptoms
Two decades of research suggest that a non-specific style of autobiographical memory retrieval–known as overgeneral memory–may be a cognitive style that increases depression vulnerability. Recent theorizing and empirical evidence suggest the mechanisms underlying overgeneral memory include rumination and avoidance. This study provided a preliminary investigation of the effectiveness of an expressive writing intervention, which has been found to reduce rumination and avoidance, in reducing overgeneral memory, with the ultimate goal of preventing future depressive symptoms among non-depressed college students. Two hundred and seven non-depressed college students completed the expressive writing intervention, in addition to a one-month and six month follow-up assessment. Participants were randomized one of three writing conditions: traditional expressive writing, specific expressive writing, or control writing. Participants in the traditional and specific expressive writing conditions were instructed to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings about an emotional event; the specific expressive writing condition contained the additional instruction that participants describe the events in a vivid and detailed manner. Participants in the control condition were instructed to write about a neutral topic (i.e., time management). All groups wrote for 20 minutes on three consecutive days. Study results showed that compared to participants in the control writing condition, participants in the traditional and specific expressive writing conditions demonstrated significantly greater autobiographical memory specificity at the six-month follow-up, but not at the one-month follow-up. Furthermore, the observed increase in autobiographical memory specificity for the expressive writing conditions could not be attributed to change in depressive symptoms over the same time interval. Results revealed that the effect of the traditional expressive writing intervention on increased autobiographical memory specificity was partially mediated by a reduction in avoidance assessed at the one-month follow-up. The hypothesis that rumination would partially mediate the effect of the expressive writing intervention on increased autobiographical memory specificity was not supported. Despite preliminary evidence that an expressive writing intervention compared to a control wiring condition is effective in increasing autobiographical memory specificity over a six-month period for initially non-depressed college students, it remains to be seen if increased autobiographical memory specificity decreases vulnerability to future depressive symptoms.