Stop Worry, Start Writing

Stop Worry

Are you a worrier? Worry generates stress, dampens self confidence and makes you feel bad. Can you stop worry? What it doesn’t do is solve problems – in fact worry doesn’t do anything useful as far as I can see.

stop worry

worry can hinder exam success

Worry comes under the umbrella of anxiety.  And we expect it to be at its worst in pressure filled situations, where we are most desperate to perform our best.  So for a presentation, exam or a race we can caught in a see-saw between confidence and worry as the consequences of performing badly are difficult to dismiss.

I have two daughters currently going through important University exams whose normal self confidence seems to be hiding away somewhere.  They were both revising throughout the Christmas holidays, yet are now gripped by fears of doing badly.  Telling them they may do worse by worrying won’t help either!

Write About Your Worries

The good news for them, and everyone, is that very recent research has found a method of overcoming this problem.  At the University of Chicago Gerardo Ramirez and Sian L. Beilock have conducted experiments on students and tested whether having students write down their thoughts about an upcoming test could improve their scores.

Having allowed the students to do one test normally with no pressure, they then gave a second test but created stressors (using video, financial reward and linking their performance to others in a team). But before completing this second test half the students completed a brief (10 minute) expressive writing assignment – whilst the control group just sat quietly.

The performance of the control group dropped off quite badly once “stress” had been introduced – showing a 12% accuracy drop – whilst those allowed to write showed a 5% increase in performance.

An explanation for this finding was given by the research papers authors:-

“The writing exercise allowed students to unload their anxieties before taking the test and accordingly freed up brainpower needed to complete the test successfully – brainpower that is normally occupied by worries about the test”

Brain Dump

In the same way your computer crashes when it runs out of RAM, it seems that pressure filled situations can drain the brains equivalent processor, or working memory. Lead researcher Beilock has shown through previous research that as worries creep in the working memory becomes overburdened and isn’t able to function as well on the task at hand.

In a different experiment they first tested to identify those who were more prone to worry and exam anxiety nerves.  Getting the experimental group to write about their anxieties about the forthcoming exam (in this case biology) again had a positive impact on results.  But they found the most benefit was for those most prone to anxiety  and it “levelled the playing field such that those students who usually get most anxious during exams were able to overcome their fears and perform up to their potential”

Sian Beilock is, apparently, a well known expert on “choking under pressure”. She believes this type of writing will:-

“… help people perform their best in variety of pressure-filled situations — whether it is a big presentation to a client, a speech to an audience or even a job interview,”

Whilst the writing has to be about the forthcoming pressure situation, many worries are based around up and coming events.  Other research has shown that emotional writing over a period of time can help those suffering from depression.  So it could be a useful thing to try as a more general technique to stop worry.  What do you think?

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Corinne Edwards January 16, 2011 at 5:45 pm

This is a very useful post, David.

I have put it under college/university on Stumble with a subtitle of student. Hope that is good.

We all have gone through the jitters when we had to take a test. I can remember staying up all night even when I knew the material.

Will pass it on to my students in my family. One is12 but he always gets stressed before and exam.

David January 16, 2011 at 8:10 pm

Thanks for your comment. I’ve been speaking to my daughters, who are both going to try this in their exams next week. It does seem logical, and probably the same as verbally “dumping” – not as easy just before an exam!

Bruce January 16, 2011 at 9:56 pm

Great Article. I am not surprised by the improvement. Worry makes all problems look bigger and more important. Writing down your thoughts and feelings brings it all into perspective. Thanks David.

David January 17, 2011 at 8:00 am

Yes, I often say worry is like putting petrol (gas) on a fire. Thanks for your comment and kind words.

Lisa January 17, 2011 at 3:46 am

Excellent advice! My son is studying for mid-terms right now. I can’t wait to share this with him. I think it’s a great strategy for all type of worrying. I am going to pass this on to my friends and colleagues.

David January 17, 2011 at 8:03 am

I suppose there is also a discussion as to why we put our children through so many exams. My eldest daughter is taking a year off study and at 23 this was the first Christmas she could remember she wasn’t studying!! Thanks for your comment.

Andrew @ Build Blog January 17, 2011 at 10:40 am


I’ve never tried this approach. My approach seems to be bottle it up and soldier on!

It is something I shall do next time I’m worrying about something.


David January 17, 2011 at 11:19 pm

We all bottle up and soldier on at some point! Like all things to do with our habits, it takes a bit of effort to try and change and not go to our default setting. Thanks for your comment.

Nitin January 17, 2011 at 1:19 pm

Thanks a lot,
hoping to see more on this subject…

David January 17, 2011 at 11:20 pm

My pleasure, keep tuning in 🙂

Debbie @ Happy Maker January 17, 2011 at 5:11 pm

Hi David,
Great post on worrying. Sounds like a good idea to write the worries down. I use to have a box labeled worries. Everytime I had a worry I would write it down and put it in the box. At the end of the week I would check my worries and the funny thing is that most of them didn’t even matter anymore. If I had any that did matter. I would look at it has a problem to find a solution for and not a worry.
It works for me, but I so like your idea.

David January 17, 2011 at 11:23 pm

This also sounds a great idea and workable way to deal with worries (forward it to the University of Chicago to see if they’ll research it!). I think the main problem with worry is when we ruminate at length – this way of yours helps put the worry aside until you can decide if its a problem worthy of your time. Thanks for contributing this.

Debbie @ Happy Maker January 18, 2011 at 12:37 am

You are welcome. By the way when I put them in the box I did forget about them, until the end of week. Worries can just take up to much time and sometimes cost us to loss sleep. This is not good.

Raymond Chua January 18, 2011 at 3:05 am

Hi David,

I agree with you on this. Stress only makes things worse.

Learning how to take care of the stress is an important part of our success.

David January 19, 2011 at 8:20 am

Thanks for your comment; as you say, stress is also a problem to be taken care of.

Tina @Cheltenham Festival Tickets January 18, 2011 at 3:01 pm

Interesting article, I’m very impressed with this. A catchy title “Stop Worry Start Writing” – I believe it’s all on how to control your unconscious and conscious mind.

Beat Schindler January 19, 2011 at 6:18 am

I agree, worry is a most ineffective use of one’s time and life. The most destructive worry is when you worry about something that you know full well you cannot realistically do anything about it to solve it. The right thing to do would be to worry no more. In many cases people do the exact opposite. It robs them of their power. I love your post because it raises awareness about the destructive power of worry.
– Beat

David January 19, 2011 at 8:22 am

Thanks for your comment and kind words. Unfortunately people find it very hard, at times, to do “the right thing”. Worry can be so destructive.

hena January 22, 2011 at 12:37 pm

this is really a new way of tackling problems its very useful and has helped me a lot
and i just love the quotes that i get in my mail
they also help me to understand thongs better !! =)
and now i don’t worry as much as i used to
i am ( or was ) a very panicky person
Thank you so much !!

David January 28, 2011 at 8:34 am

Thank you for your comment and very kind words. I’m really pleased to hear someone has found this useful.

Joel January 27, 2011 at 9:00 pm

I think there’s definitely something to this, keeping things to yourself can make it worse than it actually is. Even if you don’t make the worry public, the act of writing it sown I guess gives some sort of relief. Definitely something I will be trying.
P/S I’m glad my exam days are long over!

David January 28, 2011 at 8:36 am

Its amazing what we put kids through, I’d hate to sit another exam! Even if you don’t replicate the ideas above exactly, writing down a problem or worry helps clarify what it is and can help end the endless rumination. Thanks for your comment.

Michelle Vandepas January 31, 2011 at 11:17 pm


I wrote for years, every morning, 3 pages longhand (never ever on computer).. ala Julia Cameron style. Although my writing was dribble and didn’t help at the time, after a few months I found my life had changed, my attitude was better and I knew most things just worked themselves out.
thanks so much for the reminder.
time for me to get off the computer and back to the pen.

David February 4, 2011 at 8:19 am

That’s fascinating to read, that must have taken some self discipline. I’m doing some writing myself in the morning, which I intend to write about soon, but still find a million other things get in the way! Thanks for the comment

Krizia | Blog Income for Women February 3, 2011 at 7:42 am


If we didn’t worry about things … we’d all be able to get much further in life.

Great post!

David February 4, 2011 at 8:20 am

So why don’t we stop!! Worry achieves nothing, but we spend hours doing it. Thanks for your comment.

Maria February 8, 2011 at 7:23 am

Well, last night, I was awake at 2am, and I couldn’t fall alseep after that. I have to write two big essays and study for exam at the same time. I worry too much, and sometimes I think that I will get an heart attack at young age because of my worries. It causes me headaches and lack of concentration. I still can’t overcome my tension until I get my work done. It is easy to say not to worry, but it’s hard to avoid worrying. Anyway, that’s me. This article made me think that worry won’t write my essays 🙂 So I should get back to writing. Thanks!

David February 17, 2011 at 9:45 pm

I agree its easy to give advice but for anything anxiety related in particular its not easy to put into practice. All I will add is that this worry isn’t helping with your essays, exams or sleep. Learning some better way of coping with anxiety will help you. This is just one technique to consider. Thanks for your comment, good luck with your studies

Cheryl from thatgirlisfunny February 8, 2011 at 4:11 pm

Well done with this post! You’ve given us an effective and efficient way to manage the jitters and mind-numbing that happens to most of us when we get anxious about our performance. I will definitely use this technique from now on.

PS My comluv link should read “4.5” not “45” – lol! Formatting issue 🙂

David February 17, 2011 at 9:41 pm

Probably not so easy to do it before you go into fighting ring – especially for 45 minutes!! Thanks for you comment

Amy LeForge February 17, 2011 at 3:28 am

How fascinating! Now I just have to figure out how to get boys who hate to write to use the technique. Perhaps they could make a video and get similar results.

David February 17, 2011 at 9:39 pm

If they do it would be great to hear how they get on! Thanks for your comment

Tyrone March 3, 2011 at 10:59 am

Hey David,

Great post. I remember when I worry too much of getting things done and not actually making things happen which in turn bring a lot of tense to myself. I hate that feeling and so I now learned that if I can just do things the way I manage my time carefully, I know I can make something happen with zero worries. In the end, I also cannot force myself to do what I can’t. 🙂


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