Writing Can Help Avoid Choking Under Pressure

VIDEO: UH Case Medical Centers Aaron Ellington on doing your best under stress.
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Jasmin Sultana, 24, of Queens, N.Y., knows only too well what it means to choke under pressure.

The first time she took her driving test, tears welled up in her eyes and she could not see the road. She pulled over mid-test, stopped the car, and told the tester, "I just can't do this."

"Even though I was prepared for it, leading up to it I was really sweaty," said Sultana. "I started to feel nervous, and during the test I started crying."

The second and third time she took the test, Sultana could feel her stress level building. Again, she choked.

"I just couldn't concentrate," she said. "It became such a long process to pass this test."

Sultana was wrapping up her final college year before she got the nerve to try it again. This time she brought a friend along. Right before the test, her friend assured her there was nothing to worry about.

Sultana thought about failure, she told her friend. She thought about what her tester thought about her. She thought taking a deep breath to quell the anxiety won't work for her. But she also thought, "I've got to pass this thing." She didn't want to take this test again.

"Telling someone put things in perspective for me, that it's just a test that I've been prepared for," said Sultana, who went on to pass the test.

Letting out all of her fearful thoughts before test time may have done the trick, according to a new study published Thursday in the journal Science. The study suggests that simply writing about your anxiety just a few minutes before a high-stakes event can help you perform significantly better.

Researchers conducted four separate studies that focused on test-taking anxieties of high school and college students. Before giving the students a test, researchers assigned different groups of students with high performance anxiety to either write down their anxieties about taking the upcoming test, write freely about any topic, or not write at all.

"I am afraid I am going to make a mistake," wrote one student in the expressive writing group.

"I just want to stop thinking about how I am going to fail," another student wrote.

The study found that those who wrote about their test anxiety in some cases received a whole grade letter higher than those who wrote about an unrelated event, or did not take the time to write.

"It's really a counterintuitive finding -- that dwelling on your worries can have a positive impact," said Sian Beilock, an associate professor in the department of psychology in The University of Chicago and co-author of the study.

Writing Your Fears Away

Previous research suggests writing can relieve some types of stress. Beilock used that principle to find whether writing about anxieties would help students let go of their anxiety instead of bottling up their fears.

"One thing we've shown is that even the best students start to worry about performing well," said Beilock.

"Worrying eats up brain resources they could use to perform well," a physiological phenomenon Beilock explains in her book, "Choke."

In fact, 15 to 20 percent of students are considered test anxious, and test anxious student score 12 percentile points lower on average than their non-anxious peers, according to the American Test Anxieties Association.

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