The diaries of 1,084 U.S. users of an on-line journaling service were downloaded for a period of 4 months spanning the 2 months prior to and after the September 11 attacks. Linguistic analyses of the journal entries revealed pronounced psychological changes in response to the attacks. In the short term, participants expressed more negative emotions, were more cognitively and socially engaged, and wrote with greater psychological distance. After 2 weeks, their moods and social referencing returned to baseline, and their use of cognitive-analytic words dropped below baseline. Over the next 6 weeks, social referencing decreased, and psychological distancing remained elevated relative to baseline. Although the effects were generally stronger for individuals highly preoccupied with September 11, even participants who hardly wrote about the events showed comparable language changes. This study bypasses many of the methodological obstacles of trauma research and provides a fine-grained analysis of the time line of human coping with upheaval.
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