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Reflecting on failure can reduce stress and boost performance

Experts are reporting that reflecting on failures in your past can actually be quite beneficial. Researchers have found that insights from previous setbacks can help to boost future performance.

When individuals write critically about disappointments in their past, levels of the stress hormone cortisol are lowered. These individuals make better choices when taking on the next challenging task and show improved performance as a result.

Brynne DiMenichi, a doctoral candidate from Rutgers University-Newark, teamed up with experts from the University of Pennsylvania and Duke University to investigate why focusing on negative feelings or events can have positive outcomes.

For the study, the team examined this effect in two groups of participants. One group was instructed to write about past failures, while a control group was asked to write about a random topic.

Saliva tests conducted before the study showed comparable levels of cortisol across all of the volunteers. When presented with a task to perform after the writing exercise, however,  the test group showed much lower levels of cortisol than the control group.

“We didn’t find that writing itself had a direct relationship on the body’s stress responses,” said DiMenichi. “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.”

The researchers also found that the study participants who had written about a past failure made more careful choices on a new task and performed better overall.

“Together, these findings indicate that writing and thinking critically about a past failure can prepare an individual both physiologically and cognitively for new challenges,” said DiMenichi.

The study provides insight into how negative experiences can be used to boost future performance.

“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,” said DiMenichi.

“However, it is difficult to compare laboratory measures of cognitive performance to performance on say, the Olympic track. Future research can examine the effect of writing manipulation on actual athletic performance.”

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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