Whether it’s an upcoming presentation, a performance evaluation, or an important meeting with a client, 38% of us are worried about something every day, according to the “Worry Less Report” by Liberty Mutual Insurance. Worrying is normal, but if it’s impacting your productivity, getting out pen and paper can help, finds new research published in the journal Psychophysiology.
In a study, chronically anxious students were given a task, and measured on accuracy and reaction times as well as brain activity. Before the task, the participants were given eight minutes to write. One group was asked to write about their deepest thoughts and worries about the upcoming task, while the other group was asked to jot down what they did the day before. While the two groups performed at about the same level for speed and accuracy, the group that wrote about their worries performed the task more efficiently by using fewer brain resources.
“Worrying takes up cognitive resources and interferes with process efficiency,” says lead author Hans Schroder, a Michigan State University (MSU) psychology doctoral student and clinical intern at Harvard Medical School’s McLean Hospital. “Worriers have to work harder to get to the same level of performance. Their brains are multitasking, doing a task while managing the worry that keeps coming up over and over.”
Study coauthor Jason Moser, associate professor of psychology and director of MSU’s Clinical Psychophysiology Lab, uses a car analogy to describe the impact of worrying: “Worried college students who wrote about their worries were able to offload these worries and run more like a brand new Prius,” he writes, “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.”
That’s because when negative thoughts are in your head, they aren’t being articulated. While the participants were given eight minutes to write, Schroder said he noticed many of them taking time to read over what they had written.
“They were able to think and sit with their thoughts for a little bit,” he says. “Writing down your thoughts and worries makes you feel lighter because you’re getting rid of those worries that are weighting you down.”
You’re also getting distance from them. “When you take a look at what you’re worried about, it’s often unrealistic things,” says Schroder. “Getting the thoughts out of your mind and out on paper is helpful.”
Using The Research
Previous studies have shown that expressive writing can help individuals process past traumas or stressful events. This study suggests it also provides applications in everyday life, says Schroder.
If you’re worried about a task, for example, write down your worries 15 minutes beforehand. “Get everything out and don’t hold back,” says Schroder. “You don’t have to share your thoughts with anyone, and don’t worry about spelling and grammar. Getting worries out of your head through expressive writing frees up cognitive resources for other things.”
This technique is also helpful for people who feel like they’re overworked or in a slump, adds Moser: “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,” writes Moser. “This technique takes the edge off their brains so they can perform the task with a ‘cooler head.'”