If you’re a worry-wort, keep reading. In today’s day and age, many of us are. We’re plagued by stress and anxiety due to busy schedules, unexpected events and constant overthinking. We become overwhelmed, our brain runs wild and we feel powerless to stop it. According to recent research, there’s a certain habit that can help alleviate the unnecessary pressure we place on ourselves to help stop overthinking and reduce anxiety.
A study conducted by Michigan State University found that journaling may be a powerful tool to combat overthinking. Lead author of the study, Hans Schroder, studied college students who identified as chronically anxious. He asked them to complete a computer-based “flanker task” that measured their response accuracy as well as their reaction times. Half of the students were asked to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings about the task for eight minutes, right before they completed it. The other half of the students were given more time. They wrote about the task the day before.
Researchers measured the participants with EEG while they were completing the task. They found that both groups performed at about the same level of speed and accuracy, but the expressive writing group performed the task more efficiently. The results suggest that for people who are anxious, journaling or expressive writing may help them prepare for stressful tasks in the future.
Jason Moser, an associate professor of psychology and director of MSU’s Clinical Psychophysiology Lab, worked on the study. “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 explained. “This technique takes the edge off their brains so they can perform the task with a ‘cooler head.’”
This isn’t the first study that has shown the benefits of journaling when it comes to reducing anxiety. James Pennebaker, author of Writing to Heal, conducted a study in 1986. He asked his test subjects to write for 15 minutes about the worst things that had ever happened to them. Another group was asked to write about simpler things, such as the weather. He observed them for six months and concluded that the first group visited the doctor less frequently than the group who wrote about mundane subjects.
Pennebaker’s experiment created a new field of research in which scientists explore how expressive writing benefits the immune system. The research is known as psychoneuroimmunology. Pennebaker found that by writing out our experiences, we are able to comprehend them better.
“Emotional upheavals touch every part of our lives,” he explained. “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.”