Write your anxieties away

Srini Pillay, MD
Srini Pillay, MD, Contributor

In the late 1980s, psychologist James Pennebaker developed a form of writing therapy called expressive writing. When you engage in expressive writing, you write about your deepest thoughts and feelings without concern for spelling, grammar, or sentence construction. It is free-flowing and unfocused self-expression.

Although not everybody benefits from expressive writing, recent studies have shown that expressive writing helps anxious individuals perform better on tests. We’re not sure exactly why this is, but one leading theory is that writing about test anxiety “offloads” worrisome thoughts, thereby freeing up mental resources to concentrate on the test.

While this theory is appealing, more data was needed to substantiate it. That’s what psychology graduate student Hans S. Schroder and his colleagues set out to explore. Their study involved people who had been preoccupied by worry for a long time. The team looked for brain wave changes as a result of expressive writing to see how the writing was helping, if at all.

Worried people and their brain waves

Your brain is constantly creating electrical signals. You can see these signals when you place electrodes on the scalp and connect them to a monitoring device called an electroencephalogram (EEG). They look like waves. Every time you encounter any stimulus or event (e.g., a frightening sound, an unusual thought, or a reason to move), these brain waves change. And you can see this response on the EEG as well.

One important type of brain wave is a sharp negative (downward) signal that occurs when you make an error, even if you are not aware of it. And in people who worry, this negative signal is much larger. The larger signal reflects the compensatory effort that anxious people need to make when tuning out distracting worries. This extra effort uses thinking resources that could otherwise be better used to focus on other activities, for example answering test questions.

If expressive writing frees up mental resources, we would expect the negative signal to be reduced, as there would be fewer distracting worries stored in the brain.

The experiment: brain waves, worry, and writing

Schroder and his colleagues conducted an experiment on 44 female students from a midwestern university. They chose females because prior studies had shown that women in particular show the exaggerated negative signal when they worry. Also, women in general have more anxious apprehension than men.

One group of participants was asked to engage in expressive writing about their worries, while the comparison group was asked to engage in writing unrelated to their worries. Then they were also given a computer task designed to elicit the negative-signal brainwaves.

How expressive writing changes the brain waves of worriers

Compared to writing about things other than one’s worries, expressive writing about one’s worries did in fact reduce the size of the negative brain wave signal in people who worried a lot. This implied that “offloading” your worries into free-form writing frees up mental resources that you can then use to complete tasks more easily.

What can you do if you worry a lot? Based on this study, expressive writing about your worries will help you become less distracted, thereby making your brain less reactive and more focused. It is this unfocused activity — free-flowing writing that documents whatever comes to mind without concern for technical errors — that will help your brain become more focused, thereby allowing you to complete tasks more successfully. In fact, many other forms of unfocus can help you focus more easily too.

So, before you have to concentrate on anything, spend eight to 10 minutes writing out your worries. When you do, your worry is less likely to get in your way, and you will likely complete tasks more easily, with your worries out of your brain and on the task at hand instead.

Comments:

  1. Carly Simon

    I have heard that writing unselfciously with your nondominant hand is also a way of doing that which has been described. The change up in your circuitry is supposed to joggle and undo blocks.
    Does anybody have any thoughts or information on this topic?

  2. Hadia Pasha

    I feel that expressive writing should be followed by an effort to engage in writing more positive realistic alternatives to the worrying thought. This will not only help reduce the anxious feelings but will also set a ground to develop healthier and more optimistic perspectives about worrying situations.

  3. Quentin de la Bedoyere

    Thinking of the potential value of keeping a diary of ‘events’ in cognitive behavioral therapy, I adapted this to overcome anxieties which prevented me from getting quickly to sleep. Very rapidly, and in no order, I wrote out everything in my mind about this. I censored nothing, and used pencil for speed. I wrote about a dozen one or two line statements. Magic! the problem disappeared overnight.

    Months later I realized I had overlooked my habit of waking up in the early hours too anxious to get back to sleep. Why not use the same formula? Of course I did, and now I can slide back into sleep very easily.

  4. Shauna Johnstone

    I believe that prayer produces the same effect. If you offload your specific worries on to a higher power you are doing the same thing as in your expressive writing except doing it verbally. I am a sufferer of GAD, general anxiety disorder. I have found that prayer is more effective than Klonopin at halting a panic attack. Studies have shown the efficacy of prayer in healing of diseases, so for those who don’t like to write, such as me, as well as those who are spiritually minded, perhaps prayer should be considered.

    Also, the bible says in Philippians 4:6-7New King James Version
    6 Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; 7 and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.

  5. bakri mohamed ahmed

    this is an interesting research with a distinctive outcome that help make a good therapy for anxiety and worries which have clouds and burden over minds and thoughts.

  6. Henry L Edwards

    I love Pennebaker’s work and can wholeheartedly endorse expressive writing as an effective habit for ameliorating everyday anxieties.

    • Bob Rubin

      I have been helped by Pennebaker’s work, as well as, prayer. Pennebaker and Smyth wrote “Opening Up by Writing It Down.” Timothy Keller has written the best book on prayer I have ever read entitled, “Prayer.” I recommend both books highly.

  7. M.E.

    Expressive writing, comments that come from the heart, anything that burdens the writer or anything the writer feels exhilarating, frees the writer to concentrate on matters of the here and now and the mind feels unburdened.

    This can be sheer poetry.

    Afterwards there is a wonderful feeling, a weight lifted off your mind and you are free to open your mind to more joyful things to anticipate or contemplate.

Post a Comment:

This blog aims to provide reliable information as well as healthy dialog about the topics covered. We reserve the right to delete comments for any reason, particularly those that do not relate directly to the contents of this post, are commercial in nature, contain objectionable or inappropriate material, or otherwise violate our Privacy Policy. Promotional URLs will be removed from comments. Comments on this blog do not represent the views of our editors or Harvard University, and have not been checked for accuracy. All comments submitted to this site become the non-exclusive property of Harvard University.