Raise your hand if you’re a worrywart! Now, put your hand down and grab a pen and paper—it’s time to pour your worries into written word. We already know that writing can be a great creative outlet and it can help us process complicated feelings and even past trauma, but modern research is showing us how expressive writing can do even more than that. Getting our feelings out onto paper can help mitigate the experiences of chronic anxiety about the future and make us more efficient at the tasks in front of us.
Researchers from Michigan State University published a recent study in the journal Psychophysiology on the power of the written word. They identified college-age participants who suffer from chronic anxiety and assigned them to two groups: one group spent eight minutes writing about what they did the day before and then performed a computerized task while the other group spent the same amount of time writing about their thoughts and feelings on the computerized task they were about to perform. Both groups had similar results in terms of how speedily or accurately they completed their duties, yet the experimental group yielded interesting additional results.
Through the use of electroencephalography (EEG), these participants were found to have performed the tasks much more efficiently, having used fewer cognitive resources in the process. Much like a low-energy lightbulb that burns just as bright, these minds appeared to have been relieved of some of their pre-test anxiety simply by writing about it beforehand.
“Worrying takes up cognitive resources; it’s kind of like people who struggle with worry are constantly multitasking—they are doing one task and trying to monitor and suppress their worries at the same time,” lead author Hans Schroder, an MSU doctoral student in psychology and a clinical intern at Harvard Medical School’s McLean Hospital, told Science Daily. “Our findings show that if you get these worries out of your head through expressive writing, those cognitive resources are freed up to work toward the task you’re completing and you become more efficient.”
If you’ve ever felt completely burnt out while anticipating in a stressful event, this process makes perfect sense. By focusing so much mental energy on what’s coming we are using up essential brainpower that could be applied elsewhere (and more efficiently). The take-away from this research is that journaling about what is troubling us is an even stronger coping skill than we ever thought. Not only can we use expressive writing to make sense of the past, but we can also process our future worries and free up brain space for when the time comes to handle that stressful event.
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