How to Reduce Stress: Write About Your Past Failures and Analyze Them, Study Suggests

Keeping a journal about past failures may help change the way you react during future stressful situations, according to new research.

In a study published Friday in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, a team of postdoctoral students from various U.S. universities explored how the effects of stress affect attentional performance and production of cortisol, the stress hormone our bodies release. They also examined how expressive writing affects the harmful effects of stress, adding to the growing body of research suggesting that journal writing improves mental health.

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"We've been taught for years that focusing on the positive could lead us to success," Brynne DiMenichi, a psychology doctoral candidate at Rutgers University-Newark, told Newsweek via email. "Our results suggest that thinking critically about a past failure could actually lead to better outcomes. Perhaps this occurs because thinking about what went wrong in a failure is what is key to achieving success when one encounters a new challenge."

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A journalist writes in a courtroom in Munich. A new study suggests that writing about past failures may improve how we react in future stressful situations. Michael Dalder/AFP/Getty Images

DiMenichi and her colleagues randomly assigned about 100 volunteers, who were 24 years old on average and represented a diverse group of races, to two writing groups. One group was asked to write about the plot of a movie they recently watched. The other group was assigned to a more personal task in which they wrote about a difficult time in their life that ended up in failure. To understand the participants' levels of stress, their salivary cortisol levels were assessed. Both groups had comparable levels at the start of the study.

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However, upon completing a commonly used procedure called the Trier Social Stress Test, the group that wrote about personal failures had lower cortisol levels than the group assigned to writing about a movie. But the writing itself didn't affect stress levels, which surprised DiMenichi.

"Instead, we found that, in terms of preparation for stress, writing about a past failure didn't accept baseline stress levels but instead actually better physiologically prepared individuals for a new stressor, and subsequently, better improved performance while under stress," she explained.

But applying these findings to real-world environments is difficult because many other factors are at play during stressful situations. In the future, the team hopes to get a better glimpse into what specifically there is about writing that may help improve performance. To do so, they plan to examine how writing about failures affects actual brain processing when completing a new task.