How Thinking About Mistakes Can Actually Lower Your Stress

Don't dwell on it. Learn but move on. That's the standard line we tell ourselves and each other after screw-ups big and small. We may come out better with a little ruminating, though. According to new research, it's all about managing your stress.

A team of psychologists wanted to know whether staying positive would help study participants complete a difficult task. Before taking on the challenge, participants wrote about one of two topics: either one of their own past failures, or something that didn't relate to the participant. The researchers tested their levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, before and after.

The results were subtle, but fascinating. While the act of writing didn't much affect stress levels either way, according to co-author Brynne DiMenichi, "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." Basically, writing about stress lets you prepare for a challenge without reliving the stress itself.

We've already got a lot of evidence that allowing yourself to experience discomfort ultimately helps you process it better. In this case, sitting with past mistakes also made study participants more careful in completing their tasks, which they did to a higher caliber than the control group. This isn't an excuse to stew in your own failures or beat yourself up for getting something wrong once upon a time, but by facing these experiences rather than ignoring them, you can actually put them to good use.