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Published on: October 13, 2017
by Srini Pillay, MD, for Harvard Health:
In the late 1980s, psychologist James Pennebaker developed a form of writing therapy called expressive writing. When you engage in expressive writing, you write about your deepest thoughts and feelings without concern for spelling, grammar, or sentence construction. It is free-flowing and unfocused self-expression.
Although not everybody benefits from expressive writing, recent studies have shown that expressive writing helps anxious individuals perform better on tests. We’re not sure exactly why this is, but one leading theory is that writing about test anxiety “offloads” worrisome thoughts, thereby freeing up mental resources to concentrate on the test.
While this theory is appealing, more data was needed to substantiate it. That’s what psychology graduate student Hans S. Schroder and his colleagues set out to explore. Their study involved people who had been preoccupied by worry for a long time. The team looked for brain wave changes as a result of expressive writing to see how the writing was helping, if at all.
Your brain is constantly creating electrical signals. You can see these signals when you place electrodes on the scalp and connect them to a monitoring device called an electroencephalogram (EEG). They look like waves. Every time you encounter any stimulus or event (e.g., a frightening sound, an unusual thought, or a reason to move), these brain waves change. And you can see this response on the EEG as well.
One important type of brain wave is a sharp negative (downward) signal that occurs when you make an error, even if you are not aware of it. And in people who worry, this negative signal is much larger. The larger signal reflects the compensatory effort that anxious people need to make when tuning out distracting worries. This extra effort uses thinking resources that could otherwise be better used to focus on other activities, for example answering test questions.
If expressive writing frees up mental resources, we would expect the negative signal to be reduced, as there would be fewer distracting worries stored in the brain.
Schroder and his colleagues conducted an experiment on 44 female students from a midwestern university. They chose females because prior studies had shown that women in particular show the exaggerated negative signal when they worry. Also, women in general have more anxious apprehension than men.
One group of participants was asked to engage in expressive writing about their worries, while the comparison group was asked to engage in writing unrelated to their worries. Then they were also given a computer task designed to elicit the negative-signal brainwaves.
Compared to writing about things other than one’s worries, expressive writing about one’s worries did in fact reduce the size of the negative brain wave signal in people who worried a lot. This implied that “offloading” your worries into free-form writing frees up mental resources that you can then use to complete tasks more easily.
What can you do if you worry a lot? Based on this study, expressive writing about your worries will help you become less distracted, thereby making your brain less reactive and more focused. It is this unfocused activity — free-flowing writing that documents whatever comes to mind without concern for technical errors — that will help your brain become more focused, thereby allowing you to complete tasks more successfully. In fact, many other forms of unfocus can help you focus more easily too.
So, before you have to concentrate on anything, spend eight to 10 minutes writing out your worries. When you do, your worry is less likely to get in your way, and you will likely complete tasks more easily, with your worries out of your brain and on the task at hand instead.
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