EAST LANSING, Mich. — Have an upcoming assignment or event that’s making you nervous? Jot down your fears and feelings. A recent study finds that when people give expressive writing a try before stressful tasks, they’re actually better able to focus and perform with greater ease.
The study out of Michigan State University is the first of its kind to show the neural benefits of expressive writing, according to lead author Hans Schroder, an MSU doctoral student of psychology.
“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,” explains Schroder in a university release. “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 and his team screened MSU students for what they called “chronic anxiety.” Chronically anxious students then completed a “flanker test” on a computer that measured their response accuracy and reaction times. Before the task, nearly half of the study participants wrote out their deepest thoughts and feelings about the upcoming test for eight minutes, while the rest of the participants didn’t participate in the expressive writing prompt.
The researchers then tested the two groups and measured their brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG). They found that the group that wrote about their thoughts and feelings performed the “flanker test” more efficiently.
“Here, worried college students who wrote about their worries were able to offload these worries and run more like a brand new Prius,” explains co-author and associate professor of psychology Jason Moser. “Whereas the worried students who didn’t offload their worries ran more like a ’74 Impala – guzzling more brain gas to achieve the same outcomes on the task.”
Moser explains that relieving the brain of worries allows it to slow down and not expend as much energy in completing a task, thus making one’s wheels move more smoothly.
“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,” he says. “This technique takes the edge off their brains so they can perform the task with a ‘cooler head.’”
The study was published September 8, 2017 in the journal Psychophysiology.
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