Stress and Essay Writing
You can’t write well and feel stressed out. It’s that simple. Good writing involves being creative, brainstorming, taking chances, and being open to the comments of others. When you feel stressed out none of that happens. You tighten up, get blocked, play it safe and don’t want to hear from others.
The process of applying to college, and particularly of writing a good personal essay, is for many students, and their parents, one of the most stressful events of their lives. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Over the last few years, I worked with three nationally recognized experts on books about stress. With Lyle Miller, Ph.D and his wife Alma Dell Smith, Ph.D, co-directors of the renowned Biobehavioral Institute of Boston, I did The Stress Solution and Stress and Marriage. More recently, I wrote with Dr. Matthew Budd, professor at the Harvard Medical School, You Are What You Say, a groundbreaking book with a unique slant on this problem.
Here’s what you need to know about stress. Stress is to the human condition what tension is to a guitar string. Too little and the music is dull and raspy; too much and the music is shrill or the string breaks. The secret is learning to manage the tension so you can make great music, or in this case, write a great essay.
Cause of Stress
The cause of stress is each individual’s perception of reality e.g. how he or she has learned to interpret events in his or her life. For example, if you find yourself being “triggered” by just the thought of sitting down to work on an essay – you become anxious, your palms get sweaty, your breathing increases, and tension races though your body – then you may have been brought up in a “perfectionist” family where nothing less than an A is expected at school. Or your family could have a tendency to overachieve, taking on too many projects at the same time. Besides making sure you do well on the essay, you are also going to school, playing team sports, serving your community, doing chores at home, and trying to be a “good” son or daughter. No wonder you feel overwhelmed.
Interestingly, learning how to write can help you manage stress because you will learn how to observe yourself better. How do you react to stress? Where do you see this reaction? How often do you find yourself stressed out in a day? What kinds of things trigger you off? What in your history might be causing this reaction?
For example, in You Are What You Say we looked at Walter, one of Dr. Budd’s patients. Walter grew up in a family that was rigid and verbally abusive. He fought in the Vietnam War and was wounded. When he returned home Walter took a series of jobs that he didn’t like. With this as a history, Walter was triggered off all day long by others. He would get mad at his wife, children, boss, and at the traffic. Even after three heart attacks, he couldn’t stop. It wasn’t until he started doing some of the exercises for observing himself that he could handle the stress in his life.
Exercises for Observation
Here are three exercises that will improve your ability to observe what is causing your stressful reactions and, at the same time, improve your writing skills.
Automatic Writing: Automatic writing is a powerful tool for reflection and learning. It’s a way of circumventing the editing mind, that part of you that say, “I can’t do that.” or “I’ll goof this up.” or “I shouldn’t talk about that.”
In Automatic Writing, you pick a topic and write at a fast pace for a timed period, say five minutes. Whatever happens, you keep writing until your time is up, even if nonsense comes out.
Automatic writing is a practice that pays great dividends. When you write your thoughts down, they become clearer to you. Such clarity is vital in discovering your “truth.” Automatic writing has another benefit. If you write as rapidly as you can, without stopping to think and ponder, you’ll see amazing associations between your memories, thoughts, feelings, perceptions and actions. What you write about reflects who you are. The more you do of this exercise, and the more you reflect afterwards about what you wrote, the more you will understand yourself and gain control over those things that are bothering you.
Becoming A Reporter: Every day you read newspapers, or watch television news programs. There in quick summary are the events of the world. For this exercise, I want you to become a reporter about your own life.
In the first paragraph of all news stories we are told who, what, when, and where. Each paragraph after that fills in the why. In journalism, these are called the five Ws. For example:
President George W. Bush (who) today (when) announced at the White House (where) the latest phase of the War on Terrorism. (what) The President said that reports from the FBI, CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff had indicated a possible threat from what is being called the “Axis of Evil.” (why)
Check out the front page of any newspaper and you will see this pattern repeated over and over again.
Now, try and write a paragraph about something that is happening in your life. Going out on a date for instance. Or picking out something to wear to the Prom. Or going on a vacation with your family. Use the five Ws. What do you see about yourself after writing the paragraph? What do you see about your reactions to events? What do you see about your family history?
Photo Exercise: Another way to gain a sense of who you are is to look at photographs that have been taken of you. Ask your parents or your friends to give you some photos that they have of you. Try for a baby picture, a first grade picture, a sixth grade picture, and a high school picture. Let your memory take you back. Remember the event in as much detail as possible. After looking at each picture write down your thoughts about what you are seeing:
What was important to me at that time?
How did it feel to be me then?
What was I doing in the picture?
Do I still see this behavior in me now?