Figure 1. Expressive writing may be a helpful tool for those who suffer from clinical levels of anxiety.

The Effect of Expressive Writing on Brain Activity in Chronic Worriers

By Meenu Johnkutty ’21

Figure 1. Expressive writing may be a helpful tool for those who suffer from clinical levels of anxiety.

Chronic worriers may have one less reason to worry. A research study conducted by Michigan State University recently revealed positive effects of expressive writing, or writing down one’s deepest worries and fears, on brain activity in worriers.

In order to observe whether a correlation exists between expressive writing and chronic worrying, MSU researchers relied upon measurements of error-related negativity (ERN). ERN is a type of ERP, or event-related potential, that is calculated through certain patterns found in an EEG, a test that measures brain activity. Previous research showed that higher ERNs are found in those who suffer from clinical levels of anxiety; ERNs are especially high when such individuals are placed in situations in which they must make quick choices.

Prior to involvement in the study, potential subjects filled out a questionnaire that calculated “trait worry”, the tendency to report feelings of worry and fear in a myriad of different situations. After screening, researchers selected 40 females based on the results of past studies which revealed that females tend to have higher ERNs than males. The participants were then divided into two groups: subjects who engaged in an expressive writing task and subjects who engaged in a random writing task.

To record EEG activity, a modified version of the Eriksen flanker test was used in which participants were asked to identify the central letter of a five-letter pattern with several distracting letters surrounding the central character. The central letter in all cases was either the letter M or N, and the participants responded via a keyboard press. Testing results provided data for ERP analysis. CRN levels, which measure correct-response negativity, were then compared to the levels of its counterpart, ERN. In subjects who participated in the expressive writing task prior to the task, the difference between CRN levels and ERN levels was significantly reduced. Moreover, these participants’ ERN levels were significantly lower than those of participants who engaged in the unrelated writing task. Thus, researchers concluded that participants who completed the expressive writing task experienced much lower levels of anxiety during the flanker test.

Ultimately, this study sheds light on the benefits of expressive writing on those who suffer from chronic anxiety. Those who routinely experience high levels of stress may benefit from writing down their feelings and fears prior to engaging in stressful tasks.



  1. H. Schroder, et. al., The effect of expressive writing on the error-related negativity among individuals with chronic worry. Wiley Online Library (2017). doi. 10.1111/psyp.12990.
  2. Image retrieved from:

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