If you’re caught in a cycle of overthinking and stress, the simple act of writing can be a powerful tool.
My colleague Jamie Pennebaker has done quite a bit of work on the role of a particular kind of journaling—expressive writing—on stress. When you experience negative events in life, whether at home or at work, those events stick with you. There is good reason to want to remember the bad things that have happened. Reflecting on those moments can help you plan for the future to ensure they don’t happen again.
But, if you keep thinking about them repeatedly (a process that psychologists call rumination for the word used to describe cows chewing their cud), those thoughts can provoke anxiety and stress. Over the long-term that stress hurts.
In the moment, that kind of writing can be painful. At work, you might make a big mistake and then get chewed-out by your boss in front of other colleagues. Following that error, you might be angry with yourself, embarrassed at being yelled at, and even feel shame. When you write about that event later, you will re-experience a lot of those emotions in ways that won’t be fun.
But, the effects of this writing are powerful. They get a lot of those thoughts out of your head and onto paper. Your brain will not feel like it has to keep those thoughts rattling around in your head if you have already gotten them outside of yourself. In addition, the bad things that happen to you create little tears in the fabric of your life story. By writing about those events several times, you craft a story that knits the bad things into the narrative of your life. The more that these events become coherent to you, the less likely that they will be a source of later rumination.
Over time, you should find that your stress levels go down. You’ll sleep better and be more resilient to the small things that can go wrong each day. Your relationships at home and at work will improve. On top of that, you’ll find it easier to concentrate at work—and that will help you get more done. Finally, with lower stress about problems that have happened at work, you’ll feel more confident to dive into new and difficult projects and to share your opinions with colleagues.