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.
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”
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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