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No Need to Worry – Just Write It Down and You’ll Do Fine

by Mike Keeler

Or so says the University of Chicago.  They recently completed a study in which they asked college students to take a math test.  But, before the test, the researchers intentionally stressed the students out.  The students were told that they would be paid a cash prize based on their results, and that the test-taking would be videotaped and watched by senior members of the university’s math department.  The students were then broken into two different groups.  The first group was told to sit quietly and collect their thoughts in advance of the test.  The second group was told to write down their anxieties about their upcoming test performance.  And guess what?  The students who put their fears down on paper outscored the sit-and-thinkers by 17%.

And it worked in the real world too.  A group of 9th grade biology students facing their upcoming final were evaluated for their anxiety levels.  The researchers then divided the highest-anxiety kids into two groups, and advised one group to write down their fears before taking the test.   As a result, those who expressed themselves averaged a B+ on the final, and those who didn’t averaged a B-.

Psychologists have long believed that anxiety impedes performance, but this is first time they’ve been able to show how reducing stress improves it.  This dynamic may be relevant to other real-world situations like giving a speech or playing in a big game.  The next step in the research is to monitor the brain activity of participants and map the relationship between anxiety, expression, and performance.

In the mean time, perhaps this would be a good New Year’s resolution.  Stop freaking out.  Instead, just paraphrase the old World War 1 marching tune:  scratch out your troubles on a legal pad and perform, perform, perform.

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