Expressive writing can help you get those fears out of your head—so you’ll have more brainpower to devote to accomplishing even the most stressful tasks.

By Amanda MacMillan
Updated September 17, 2017

Can’t stop worrying about an upcoming event or a big life change? Journaling about your anxieties may increase your chances of success, says a new study in the journal Psychophysiology, by helping you perform related tasks more efficiently.

It may sound counterintuitive—the fact that dwelling on your biggest fears, and literally putting them into words, can help you feel better and focus in on the task at hand. “But if you get these things out of your head and put them down on paper, it externalizes them and frees up your mind to think about other things,” says study co-author Jason Moser, director of Michigan State University’s Psychophysiology Lab.

Moser and his colleagues wanted to study journaling—or expressive writing, as they call it—because previous research has shown that it can help anxious middle-schoolers score higher on upcoming exams. And they wanted to study it in adult women, says Moser, because women tend to report anxiety and rumination more than men.

So the researchers asked 40 “chronically anxious” college females (classified via a standard screening test) to complete a computer task that measured their response accuracy and reaction times. Before the task, half of the volunteers wrote for eight minutes about their “deepest thoughts” and concerns about the assignment; the other half wrote about what they did the day before.

Both groups performed at about the same level for speed and accuracy. But those who had written about the task used fewer brain resources—measured with an EEG brain scan—in the process.

In other words, those women were able to “run more like a brand new Prius,” Moser said, “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 researchers think that means that journaling before a stressful task could help reduce burnout and help people approach difficult situations with a cool head. But they key, says Moser, is to write about the task itself—and exactly what’s worrying you.

“Sit down for a few minutes, right before you’re about to do something stressful, and write about it,” he says. “Be specific: ‘I’m worried I’m going to look stupid; I’m worried I’m going to be unprepared.’ Whatever your concern is, write it down.”

It doesn’t have to be with pen and paper, either. “We think this could also work by typing out your thoughts on your computer, your tablet, or even your phone,” says Moser. “The idea is to get it out of your head, like a big brain dump, so you can focus on what’s really important.”