Writing down the things that cause anxiety can help to alleviate stress and concerns, according to a new study carried out by the Michigan State University. Through this study, the first neural evidence of expressive writing has been shown.

People worry a lot on a daily basis, which leads to stress, anxiety and related disorders and diseases. Most of the concerns are based on feelings or future events that might never happen. Sadly, it appears to be a condition that many people can’t avoid suffering. However, this new research shows that there are simple things people can do to stop worrying. It backs up the research developed by James Pennebaker in the 80’s about the benefits of journaling to reduce pressure and improve our immune system.

Image Credit: Plaid Zebra
Image Credit: Plaid Zebra

“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” said lead author of the study, Hans Schroder, who is also an MSU doctoral student in psychology and a clinical intern at Harvard Medical School’s McLean Hospital.

What does the field of psychoneuroimmunology study?

In 1986, James Pennebaker, author of Writing to Heal, develop a study about the impacts of expressive writing on our emotional health and the immune system. He asked some test subjects to write about the worst things that had ever happened to them for about 15 minutes. He also asked a group of participants to write about the most mundane and irrelevant things such as the weather. He observed these two groups for six months, and he concluded that the first group had to go fewer times to the doctor compared to the group that wrote about unimportant matters. Thanks to these observations, the field of “psychoneuroimmunology” was created to find out how expressive writing improves the immune system. Pennebaker also stated that people can understand their experiences more if they write them down.

“Emotional upheavals touch every part of our lives. You don’t just lose a job, you don’t just get divorced. These things affect all aspects of who we are — our financial situation, our relationships with others, our views of ourselves . . . [and] writing helps us focus and organize the experience” said Pennebaker.

Based on that, the Michigan State University started this new study to prove the reaction of our brains to expressive writing. This study was funded by the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health.

Expressive writing makes the mind work less

Schroder studied college students who were identified as chronically anxious. They had to fill a computer-based “flanker task” that tested their response accuracy and reaction times. Half of these college students had eight minutes to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings about the task, before completing it. The rest of them had to write about what they did the day before.

Image Credit: American Journal Experts
Image Credit: American Journal Experts

While completing the flanker task, researchers measured participants with electroencephalography or EEG. The researchers noticed that both groups had kind of the same level of speed and accuracy on the computer-based test, but the expressive writing group was more efficient as they used less of the brain resources. The study concluded that those who identified themselves as “worriers” can use this technique 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,” said Jason Moser, an associate professor of psychology and director of MSU’s Clinical Psychophysiology Lab. “This technique takes the edge off their brains so they can perform the task with a ‘cooler head.’ ” said Tim Moran, a Spartan graduate who’s now a research scientist at Emory University. Both of them worked on this study.

Five minutes of expressive writing a day can help release unnecessary stress

According to this study, practicing being vulnerable with others and with ourselves makes people more aware. Bottling up fears and feelings only makes them occupy our bodies and minds. Therefore, 5 minutes of expressive writing a day can liberate all the forthcoming stress people is carrying within unnecessarily.

That way, people can be able to perform tasks more efficiently. Previous research has also shown the good impacts of writing to our emotional state and to overcome traumatic situations. However, this is the first one to show the neural responses to expressive writing. This research was published online in the journal Psychophysiology.

Source: Collective Evolution