Over the past few weeks, I’ve grown familiar with the benefits of opening myself to difficult emotions and accepting undesirable situations. I typically close myself off and refuse to acknowledge these feelings and these events—but thanks to a little insight from several counselors who specialize in emotion regulation, I’ve finally adopted healthier habits.

Admittedly, I was skeptical of this tactic; however, my personal experiences as well as emerging research has proven its effectiveness.

According to new research, reflecting on past failures and allowing difficult emotions to run their course is not only beneficial to your mental and physical health, but can lead to greater successes in the future. This study “Writing About Past Failures Attenuates Cortisol Responses and Sustained Attention Deficits Following Psychosocial Stress,” which is published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, says writing critically and thinking deeply about past shortcomings can result in improved performance due to a decrease in stress and more careful decision-making.

We often try to avoid experiencing negative emotions and thinking about less than fortunate situations; and to do so, we focus on the positive. However, a growing body of research suggests truly feeling these negative emotions and analyzing these negative events can lead to more positive outcomes. But why? Brynne DiMenichi, a doctoral candidate from Rutgers University-Newark, posed this very question and led a team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Duke University in discovering the answer.

To do so, the team recruited two groups of study participants: a test group and a control group. First, the test group was tasked with writing about past failures, while the control group was tasked with writing about an insignificant topic, unrelated to themselves. Then, both the test group’s and the control group’s stress levels were evaluated by the researchers based on salivary cortisol levels. (Remember: cortisol is the “stress hormone.”) This was the initial phase of the study and all of the participants’ stress levels were comparable at this time.

Then it came time for the volunteers to perform a new stressful task while the researchers continued to track their cortisol levels. Ultimately, the team discovered that the test group had lower cortisol levels than the control group—which led DiMenichi to draw an interesting conclusion: “We didn’t find that writing itself had a direct relationship on the body’s stress responses. Instead, our results suggest that in a future stressful situation, having previously written about a past failure causes the body’s stress response to look more similar to someone who isn’t exposed to stress at all,” she explained.

In addition, the researchers observed that participants in the test group who wrote about past failures engaged in more careful decision-making on the new task, and displayed an overall better performance than the control group. “Together, these findings indicate that writing and thinking critically about a past failure can prepare an individual both physiologically and cognitively for new challenges,” DiMenichi explained. She goes on to emphasize the benefits of journaling or expressive writing: “It provides anyone who wants to utilize this technique in an educational, sports, or even therapeutic setting with clear-cut evidence of expressive writing’s effectiveness.”

Frontiers (2018, March 23). Analyzing Past Failures May Boost Future Performance by Reducing Stress. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved March 23, 2018 from http://neurosciencenews.com/failure-stress-performance-8679/

DiMenichi, B. C., Lempert, K. M., Bejjani, C. & Tricomi, E. (2018, March 23). Writing About Past Failures Attenuates Cortisol Responses and Sustained Attention Deficits Following Psychosocial Stress. Retrieved March 26, 2018 from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnbeh.2018.00045/full

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Taylor Bennett

Taylor Bennett is the Content Development Manager at Thriveworks. She devotes herself to distributing important information about mental health and wellbeing, writing mental health news and self-improvement tips daily. Taylor received her bachelor’s degree in multimedia journalism, with minors in professional writing and leadership from Virginia Tech. She is a co-author of Leaving Depression Behind: An Interactive, Choose Your Path Book and has published content on Thought Catalog, Odyssey, and The Traveling Parent.

Check out “Leaving Depression Behind: An Interactive, Choose Your Path Book” written by AJ Centore and Taylor Bennett."

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