There are a lot of suggestions on how to reduce anxiety before an exam, but have you considered writing about it? Research sponsored by the journal Science and supported by the National Science Foundation suggests that writing about something that’s making you anxious can be a beneficial way to confront that anxiety and minimize its impact on you. In an article in the UChicago News, reported on the positive findings of the study.

The senior author of this study, Sian Beilock, knows a little something about test anxiety and why otherwise intelligent, well-prepared people suffer a mental block during critical, stressful times such as test taking. She is the author of the book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To in which she gives advice on how to avoid choking in stressful situations such as exams.

“Despite the fact that people are often motivated to perform their best, the pressure-filled situations in which important tests, presentations, and matches occur can cause people to perform below their ability level instead.”

Sian Beilock

According to the research, pressure-filled situations can drain part of the brain’s processing power known as “working memory.” This type of memory is critical for many of our everyday activities. It works as a kind of mental scratch pad which allows people to retrieve and use information that’s important to the task at hand.  Working memory is a limited resource. When anxiety sneaks in, it becomes quickly overburdened and saps the brain power needed to be successful.

Other research has shown that writing about frightening or traumatic events can reduce the experience of stress or anxiety associated with those events. The hypothesis is that by writing about something fearful, the experience of that fear is minimized. In other words, when you confront the scary thing and put it into your own words, you take the power away from it and put it into a clearer context.

In Beilock’s experiment, researchers recruited 20 college students and presented them with a short math test. Just before the test, students were told just to do their best. Prior to the second test, researches created a more stressful experience by telling the students that those who performed well would receive financial compensation and that all the other students were depending on their performance as part of a team effort. They were also told their test taking would be video taped and reviewed by several math teachers.

The group was divided into two, and one of those groups was given instructions to write about their feelings regarding the upcoming test. The other group (the control group) was asked to sit quietly until the test started. The group who wrote about their feelings before the test performed significantly better than the control group. In fact, the control group showed a 12% drop in accuracy from the first test while the writing group showed a 5% increase in accuracy and an improvement overall in scores .

Other research has shown that it’s not just the act of writing that provides a benefit, but specifically writing about the event that is causing anxiety. Facing the fear by describing it and describing the emotions you associate with it helps create a level of comfort with how you’re feeling. It allows you to shrink the fear into something that is understandable and manageable.

When it’s time for your exam, make sure you get to the location 10 minutes earlier than required, or if you’re taking a remote test, make sure you’re set up 10 minutes earlier than required. Take that 10 minutes to write down your fears and put them into perspective. It might just help you improve your score, and hey! It can’t hurt!

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