Since we were little, we’ve been told the merits of journaling as a way to work through our thoughts and emotions. As adults, indulging in “Dear Diary”-style exercises often takes a backseat to the myriad tasks that pile up on any given grown-up day, as we struggle to find a work-life balance — and then there’s all the time we waste on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. (Or maybe social media is the “Dear Diary” of today).
Well, you might consider a return to the pastime: New research shows it can help alleviate the stress and anxiety that cloud our minds and impinge upon our ability to get things done at an optimal level.
Researchers at Michigan State University studied two groups of college students who identified as “chronically anxious.” One group was told to write out their anxieties about an upcoming task (a computer exercise which tested their response accuracy and reaction time), while the other group simply wrote about what they did the day before.
While both groups scored the same on speed and accuracy, the first group performed more efficiently, because they’d purged those stressful feelings that would normally compete for brain space.
“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,” explained lead study author Hans Schroeder, an MSU doctoral student in psychology and a clinical intern at Harvard Medical School’s McLean Hospital. “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.”
So the next time you’re stressing about an audition or a big work meeting or a first date, try taking pen to paper, old-school style, and exploring those fears. Not only will you feel better, but you’ll perform better, too. And who knows, maybe just believing that it helps will help, a la the placebo effect.