Writing About Terrorist Attacks Appears Therapeutic

In a new research study, participants who had all experienced either the train attack in Madrid or the 9/11 attacks in New York City who used more words that described their thoughts, emotions, and the causes of the attacks, and more positive words, recovered better from their shock than other participants. The researchers say that the Spaniards and the Americans who experienced those terrorist attacks underwent similar psychological processes in recovery. The study points to the therapeutic value of expressive writing as a beneficial tool for recovery from shock from about eight weeks following a traumatic event and, perhaps, for an unknown period forward from eight weeks.

The study looked at pronouns used, and emotions, thinking, and social interactions expressed, in the writings. Three hundred and twenty-five participants were from the US and 333 were from Spain. Some differences were noted in the use of pronouns and social interactions between writings from the two countries, although feelings about the events were quite similar. For example, the use of “we” and greater attention to the social milieu were apparent in writings of participants from the more collectivist culture of Spain. Participants from the more individualistic culture of the US tended to use “I” language more frequently, an indicator of greater concern about what they had personally experienced. Yet, the importance to better recovery of sharing the experience with others appeared to be the same for both groups. The cognitive processes and phases for overcoming shock seemed very similar. Depression and major depression were about the same between the two study groups too, and at expected rates after such events.

Three phases are described; emergency, inhibition and adaptation. Although the study used a descriptive survey, rather than a randomized control research method, the findings still appear to provide potential directions for further research. Such research might help us to better understand and respond to potential PTSD victims.

Further, they say, “Writing about traumatic events could be an adaptive strategy.” They reference other research indicating that this is often the case. Integration and adaptation were more apparent at eight weeks after the terrorist attack experiences, but the researchers did not look specifically at how much longer expressive writing might have been helpful. “Accounts that explain what happened, that emphasize the positive (personal growth and improved relations with others–as positive responses to the trauma) and that accept negative emotions without repressing them but without overly stressing them, are beneficial accounts” (Fernández, Páez & Pennebaker, 2009). Positive responses might include gratefulness at being alive or being glad of caring by family and friends afterwards.


  1. Fernández, I, Páez, D and Pennebaker, JW. Comparison of expressive writing after the terrorist attacks of September 11th and March 11th. International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology, Vol. 9, Nº 1, pp.89-103, 2009, from Internet source at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/03/090311120435.htm

© Copyright 2009 by Jolyn Wells-Moran, PhD, MSW, therapist in Seattle, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Stella


    March 19th, 2009 at 7:14 AM

    I think any kind of writing is great for the soul… It’s such a terrible trauma what these individual must have faced and keeping it bottled up inside, cannot be good. I think that’s why many people who write in a journal daily gets a little relief from what they are feeling.

  • Wendi


    March 20th, 2009 at 3:03 AM

    I agree with Stella, writing can be very theraputic and I write in my diary almost every day, whether it’s the stress i feel at the end of day, if i want to vent, or whatever. I know it’s nothing compared to what the people had to go through during the terrorist attacks.

  • Bethany


    March 20th, 2009 at 4:08 AM

    For me writing is a very therapeutic experience and helps me to just get everything out in the open. I know that it can help others in the same way too.

  • brea


    March 20th, 2009 at 7:18 AM

    Writing has helped me to deal with so much in my life. If it wasn’t for logging down what i felt i think I would have gone crazy… it really helps.

  • Myrna


    March 22nd, 2009 at 8:12 PM

    I think being able to express trauma in a positive way doesnt come naturally to everyone. A friend of mine has been an introvert from childhood and a very reserved person. She is having a very hard time despite being in therapy. She survived a bad skiing accident last year and lost her boyfriend in that 1.

  • Ryan


    March 23rd, 2009 at 3:33 AM

    Writing is not really my thing but I know that I have found in the past that sometimes putting words to paper is a lot easier for me than saying the words out loud. It gives you the opportunity to get things out in the open without being afraid of what others will say in response. In school I always hated having to keep a journal even when the topics to write about were those that I could pick for myself. But as I have gotten older I do better recognize the value of this process and hope to get into the habit of making it more a part of my own daily life.

  • Melissa


    March 24th, 2009 at 1:35 AM

    Is this something like getting someone to write a diary. Maybe starting from the point of bad memories. As you keep going you tend to sound more positive with the written word. Some of that rubs on into the psyche I guess in the process.

  • yaley


    March 24th, 2009 at 2:49 AM

    I found I can express myself more in writing then verbally… There are times when I may not want to say something cause it comes out wrong, or if I am hurt, in a bad mood, etc… jotting it down seems so much easier for me…I feel as if I can say anything on paper

  • Diana


    March 25th, 2009 at 4:33 AM

    Why do we think that young girls have forever been writing in their dear diaries? It is easier to let things out with no fear of being judged or criticized when you write about what is going on on the inside instead of having to say it out loud to other people. We are so afraid of what others may think about us that it becomes nicer to just write it all down instead. I hope this is not an art form that is fading, because do you know how much of history for example would have been lost if we did not have the diaries of those who lived through those times to read and study? Anne Frank is but one example. She could never express or voice her fears to her family but she laid it all on the line in her writing and look at how much so many of us have gotten from that in return. That went off on a tangent a little but it proves the point that writing is helpful to so many in different ways and I can only hope that there are those who continue in the tradition.

  • Fred


    March 27th, 2009 at 1:11 AM

    This might sound funny but way back in 1975 my teacher in school got me to write about the most traumatic experience I have had. I was in grade3 then. When I was 6 yeard old I remember being locked up by my elder brother in the broom closet when noone was home. It was an experience that kept me away from so many things and claustraphobic places including elevators. I found writing about that incident over and over helped me get over my fear.

  • kelsey


    April 6th, 2009 at 3:53 AM

    It makes me feel so much better when I read back of what I had written when I am stressed or feeling down. Sometimes it was like therapy to see how far I have come. I have a strange fear of drowning and it may have been when I thought I was going to drown when I was a child. I have never written about that but I wonder if it would help me get over deep water and drowning.

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