If the anxiety of performing an upcoming task is giving you stress, simply writing about your feelings may help you perform the task more efficiently, suggests new research.
The research – published online in the journal Psychophysiology — provides the first neural evidence for the benefits of expressive writing, said lead author Hans Schroder, a doctoral student in psychology at Michigan State University (MSU) in the US.
“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,” Schroder said.
“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,” Schroder said.
For the study, college students identified as chronically anxious through a validated screening measure completed a computer-based “flanker task” that measured their response accuracy and reaction times.
Before the task, about half of the participants wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings about the upcoming task for eight minutes. The other half, in the control condition, wrote about what they did the day before.
While the two groups performed at about the same level for speed and accuracy, the expressive-writing group performed the flanker task more efficiently, meaning they used fewer brain resources, measured with electroencephalography, or EEG, in the process.
While much previous research has shown that expressive writing can help individuals process past traumas or stressful events, the current study suggests the same technique can help people — especially worriers — prepare for stressful tasks in the future.
“Expressive writing makes the mind work less hard on upcoming stressful tasks, which is what worriers often get ‘burned out’ over, their worried minds working harder and hotter,” Jason Moser, Associate Professor at MSU.
“This technique takes the edge off their brains so they can perform the task with a ‘cooler head,'” Moser added.