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Expressive Writing Liberates the Mind from Chronic Worrying

Letting go of worry via expressive writing frees up working memory, study finds.

Pixabay/Creative Commons
Source: Pixabay/Creative Commons

Taking a few minutes to jot down your thoughts and feelings using a technique called “expressive writing” can free up brain space and helps the mind function more efficiently, according to a new study led by psychology researcher Hans Schroder. These findings were published online September 8 in the journal Psychophysiology.

During expressive writing, you let go of any inhibitions and write freely about your deepest thoughts and innermost feelings with the understanding that it will never be read by anyone else or shared on social media.

Schroder and collaborators at Michigan State University found that doing an eight-minute expressive writing exercise helped chronic worriers with high anxiety perform better on a stressful computer-based “flanker” task by reducing error-related negativity. As Schroder et al. explain in the study abstract, “Expressive writing may serve to ‘offload’ worries from working memory, therefore relieving the distracting effects of worry on cognition as reflected in a decreased error-related negativity.”

Schroder is currently a clinical intern at Harvard Medical School's McLean Hospital, but he conducted this research at Michigan State with Jason Moser, associate professor of psychology and Lab Director of MSU's Clinical Psychophysiology Lab.

For this study, college students who identified as being chronically anxious were divided into two groups. Half the students performed eight minutes of expressive writing, while the other half wrote an emotionless chronological timeline of what they’d done the day before.

Then, each participant performed the flanker task as he or she was having brain activity measured using electroencephalography (EEG) to gauge cognitive processing speed and accuracy. Those in the expressive-writing group performed the flanker task more efficiently and the EEG showed they were using fewer brain resources.

As Schroder explained in a statement, "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."

The MSU researchers concluded that expressive writing shows promise for alleviating the detrimental impacts of chronic worrying on cognitive function and look forward to future studies that will test the possibilities of expressive writing even further.

Along this same line, a May 2017 study from the University of Arizona reported that just 20 minutes of “narrative expressive writing” over a three-day period improved heart rate variability (HRV)—which indicates a physiological "relaxation response" within the autonomic nervous system—for people going through a stressful life event. (See my post, "Narrative Expressive Journaling Could Help Your Vagus Nerve.")

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Hans S. Schroder, Tim P. Moran, Jason S. Moser. The effect of expressive writing on the error-related negativity among individuals with chronic worry. Psychophysiology, 2017; DOI: 10.1111/psyp.12990

Kyle J. Bourassa, John J.B. Allen, Matthias R. Mehl, David A. Sbarra. "The Impact of Narrative Expressive Writing on Heart Rate, Heart Rate Variability, and Blood Pressure Following Marital Separation." Psychosomatic Medicine, 2017; 1 DOI: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000475

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