For Worriers, Expressive Writing Cools Brain on Stressful Tasks

Writing about your feelings may help you perform an upcoming stressful task.

For Worriers, Expressive Writing Cools Brain on Stressful Tasks
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A new study by the Michigan State University, writing about feelings help chronic worriers perform a stressful task effectively. The study offers first ever evidence for the benefits of expressive writing.

Lead author Hans Schroder said, “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.”

“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.”

For Worriers, Expressive Writing Cools Brain on Stressful Tasks
A study led by MSU psychology researcher Hans Schroder found that simply writing about their feelings before a stressful task helped chronic worriers perform more efficiently on the task. Photo by G.L. Kohuth

Scientists mainly involved college students in the study. They then identified students as chronically anxious when validated by a computer-based ‘flanker task’ that measured their response accuracy and reaction times. Half of the participants before task wrote their thoughts or feelings about the 8-minute tasks. Remaining half wrote about what they did the day before.

Scientists found both groups performed the task at the same speed with accuracy. The first group with expressive writing performed the flanker task more efficiently. They utilized fewer brain resources with EEG in the process.

Jason Moser, associate professor of psychology said, “Here, worried college students who wrote about their worries were able to offload these worries and run more like a brand new Prius. Whereas the worried students who didn’t offload their worries ran more like an ’74 Impala – guzzling more brain gas to achieve the same outcomes on the task.”

Like previous studies that suggest expressive writing can help individuals process past traumas or stressful events, this study suggests that the same technique can help chronic worriers to overcome stressful tasks.

Moser said, “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. This technique takes the edge off their brains so they can perform the task with a ‘cooler head’.”