Worry Much? Brain Scientists Say Expressive Writing Can Help

According to a new study out of Michigan State University, writing about your feelings may help you perform an upcoming stressful task more efficiently by freeing up cognitive resources that would otherwise be used to reduce stress during the task itself. This is the first neural evidence suggesting that expressive writing provides relief from cognitive overload.

“Worrying takes up cognitive resources,” explains lead author Hans Schroder, an MSU doctoral student in psychology and a clinical intern at Harvard Medical School’s McLean Hospital. “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.”

What Does Brain Science Tell Us?

For the study, which was published in the online journal Psychophysiology, college students who identified as chronically anxious completed a computer-based task measuring their response accuracy and reaction times. Half of the participants participated in an expressive writing task beforehand, reflecting on the upcoming task for eight minutes; the other half also completed a writing exercise, but wrote about what they did the day before.

Schroder and his team found that, while the two groups scored about the same on speed and accuracy, the expressive writing group scored higher on overall efficiency, meaning they used fewer brain resources, as measured in the lab by electroencephalography (EEG).

Associate professor of psychology Jason Moser, one of Schroder’s fellow researchers, explains their findings this way: “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 a ’74 Impala—guzzling more brain gas to achieve the same outcomes on the task.”

The idea that expressive writing can help people process past traumas and stressful events isn’t new, and there’s plenty of evidence to back it up. Schroder’s study is unique in that it shows the same technique can be used to prevent stress over future tasks. This could be of great help to students studying for exams or teachers preparing for the big semester ahead.

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

How Can We Use These Findings?

1. Make more time for free writing, even in the sciences.

Usually we reserve reflective writing for language arts classes, but this study suggests that journal time could be useful in science class too. Have students write about an upcoming project or exam, detailing which subjects they’re most concerned about being tested on. Pay attention to whether performance improves with the addition of more writing time.

2. Urge students to monitor and manage their stress levels.

One of the first steps in reducing stress is being able to recognise when and how it affects us. If students know there’s brain science backing the act of managing stress through writing, they’ll be more likely to adopt it as a regular strategy.

3. Use writing to remember.

If, as Schroder suggests, you free up cognitive resources by writing down your worries, maybe it also works to free up brain space by writing down new material. Encourage students to take notes not just for future reference during study sessions but also as a strategy to increase their brain capacity for further learning.

4. Share these findings with your colleagues.

Teachers can benefit, too. Spend some time reflecting on an upcoming lecture or presentation, or on that stack of papers to grade, in order to help your brain “cool off” and work through it all more efficiently. Most importantly, share these findings with your colleagues as well. Researchers are discovering more and more about the human brain every day, but we need to share this knowledge in order to make it useful.


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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