Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Robert G. Wahler


The current study investigates the relationships between individual differences in the coherence and richness of personal narratives about distressing experiences and observed variations in physiological, physical, and psychological response patterns. After reviewing the literature on the function and form of personal narrative, as well as the nature and impact of distressing experiences, an original empirical investigation is presented. Ninety-seven undergraduate students narrated about a distressing interpersonal experience. They provided information concerning their physical and psychological functioning, and were physiologically monitored during the act of narrating. Analyses were conducted to examine this data in accordance to several hypotheses generated from theoretical understandings of personal narrative and empirical literature on coping and the narrative expression of distressing experiences. As predicted, narrative coherence was inversely correlated with physical symptoms while richness was inversely correlated with stress. A higher level of coherence was also observed among participants with positive health indictors. In contrast to the hypotheses, coherence was inversely predictive of forgiveness and empathy towards one's offender. As was hypothesized, coherence was directly predictive of heart rate reactivity and recovery during narration of the distressing experience, while richness was directly predictive of mean arterial pressure reactivity. The current findings provide support for previous research indicating the detriments of repressive coping and the key role of language in response to distressing experiences. Importantly, the current study indicates the need to further investigate individual differences in the process of narrating personal experience and the role that they may play in effects on current functioning.

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