Research finds that writing about what went wrong can reduce stress and improve future performance.
If at first you don’t succeed, write it out and try again.
Analyzing a previous failure by writing about the experience can help you approach your next challenge with less stress and greater success, according to a new study published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.
Researchers tasked a test group with writing about a past setback, while people in a control group wrote about a topic not related to themselves. Then both groups were given a new stressful task to complete, and the research team measured the amount of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva. The group that had confronted a past failure on paper had lower stress levels and made more careful choices on the new task, and ultimately performed better, than the group that hadn’t reflected upon its failures.
The report claims to be the first demonstration that writing and thinking deeply about a past failure improves the body’s physical response to stress and improves your future performance. So rather than staying positive and avoiding all thoughts of past failures, the research suggests that you should spend some time dwelling on your mistakes.
“These findings indicate that writing and thinking critically about a past failure can prepare an individual both physiologically and cognitively for new challenges,” wrote study author Brynne DiMenichi, a doctoral candidate from Rutgers University-Newark.
Previous reports have also suggested that writing about stressful events can be an important healing tool in moving forward. A classic 1988 study by noted psychologist Dr. James W. Pennebaker of the University of Texas at Austin found that students who wrote about their traumas for 15 minutes on four consecutive days visited the campus health center less and used pain relievers less frequently over six months than students who wrote about more trivial matters. A more recent Cambridge study also found that analyzing traumatic, stressful or emotional events by putting them to paper improved the writer’s physical and psychological health.
Harvard Medical School notes that writing helps you relax and reduces anxiety by physically lowering your blood pressure and heart rate; so even if the act of rehashing a stressful or emotional experience is initially uncomfortable, you’ll feel better once you’re done. And spending five minutes writing the next day’s to-do list before bed has been shown to help you fall asleep 10 minutes faster than just jotting down what happened to you that day.
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