As we enter into the 2020s, a new year might mean tackling new worries surrounding tasks. But when an anxious person performs a single task, they are often actually multitasking. That’s because they’re trying to deal with the task at hand while also dealing with their worries. Anxious people have to put in extra effort, which takes up cognitive resources.
Hans Schroder, a clinical and research postdoctoral fellow at Harvard’s McLean Hospital, tells me that researchers have also noticed anxious individuals perform tasks inefficiently. They put in more work than non-anxious people to achieve the same level of performance.
In 2011, Schroder and colleagues came across a study showing that expressive writing improves test performance among students with high test anxiety and were struck with an idea. They decided to conduct their own study evaluating how expressive writing could help anxious people complete tasks better.
They recruited college students identified as chronically anxious and asked them to complete a computer-based task that measured their response accuracy and reaction time. However, before the study, half of the participants spent eight minutes writing about their thoughts and fears regarding the upcoming assignment. The control group was simply asked to write about what they did the day before. Then, when they did the task, the participants’ brain activity was measured with electroencephalography, or EEG.
While each of the groups’ results were similar, the brain scans showed that the people who engaged in expressive writing used fewer brain resources during the process, showing that exercise helped them be more efficient.
Schroder — who’s noticed that since the study he tends to express worries more quickly in an effort to offload them — says that, at its heart, expressive writing should be an intentional, event-centered exercise focusing on one event, which can be something from the past or the present.
“I would say that writing is most beneficial in this sort of exercise when the focus is on emotion,” he says. “In therapy, we encourage individuals to open up and get in touch with their feelings. Expressive writing is another way of doing this in a focused way.”
Writing allows individuals to offload their worries — and removes the need to put in extra effort. So if there’s a worry that’s getting in your way, one of the best things you can do is write it down and explain why it’s worrying you.