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Guide To Writing Psychology Essays On Stress

Confronting Writing Anxiety
by Lauren Cone, UR Writing Fellow
(printable version here)

Potential Situations Caused by Writing Anxiety—The Undesirable Results of Stress

Having some level of anxiety associated with writing is often a sign that you care about doing well. If this anxiety motivates you to devote thought and effort to your writing, your stress-induced attitude and mindset have a certain positive value.

In excessive quantities, however, stress can be a hindrance; herein lies the problem. If you suffer from writing anxiety, there are three typical ways in which you might act:

1. You might continually postpone working on your assignment and get a late start. If you procrastinate, you may not have enough time to think about and compose what you want to write. This procrastination adversely affects both the quality of your writing and your sense of control over the situation.

2. Sometimes you might become so nervous that you feel unable to write anything at all. This feeling is known as writer’s block, and it is akin to self-sabotage.

3. On the other end of the spectrum, you might devote too much time to worrying about how to make your paper perfect. In addition to causing you unnecessary stress, this approach can take away time from other important activities or assignments (Ryan 43).

None of these is the ideal way to write a paper you feel good about (nor the way to be a healthy, well-rounded college student). Thankfully, by assessing and adjusting your approach to writing, you can confront both the personal and practical causes of your anxiety.

Causes for Writing Anxiety—Knowing the Enemy and Knowing Yourself

First, it helps to identify the cause(s) of your anxiety. If you can locate the factors that affect your attitude about writing, you can take steps to confront them and put your situation in perspective.

Writing anxiety can result from a variety of social and academic factors. You may worry about your grade in a class, the deadline for a paper may be encroaching upon you, your parents may be pressuring you to excel, you may fear failure, you may be competitive by nature, you may be preoccupied with college life and social issues, or your professor may seem intimidating and relentless (Ryan 51-2, Sherwood 6).

Such circumstances are usual and understandable. They do, however, increase stress levels and become cumbersome distractions. The good news is that they do not have to dictate your state of mind or the paper you produce. If you suspect the source of your anxiety resembles one or more of the factors discussed above, try to locate and evaluate these triggers. Attempt to understand why certain aspects of attitude or lifestyle cause you anxiety; recognition begins the process of reevaluation and relief.

Begin by asking yourself questions that relate to:

  • Being reasonable and fair (What are my expectations for myself? What are other’s expectations of me? Are these appropriate? Intimidating? Motivating?)
  • Using realistic language (Would a less-than-perfect grade on one assignment literally ruin my academic record?)
  • Living with balance and contentment (Is my anxiety a one-time occurrence or a common situation for me? Does the pursuit of doing something perfectly keep me from participating in things I enjoy? How do my lifestyle choices affect my academics—and vice versa?)

It may help to discuss your answers with a trusted friend, family member, professor, or counselor.

Where to Go from Here—Practical Steps to Unlock the Writer in You

Understanding the assignment well is a basic but significant part of feeling confident in your ability to begin writing.

  • Read the assignment carefully. Circle the key terms. Ask your professor to clarify anything about which you are uncertain.
  • If possible, arrange to meet with your professor during his/her office hours. Making this personal connection can be quite valuable. It can help you understand your professor’s expectations of you and of the assignment. Also, your taking the time to meet with him/her demonstrates that you treat the class and assignment with respect.

Brainstorming and organizing your ideas can be just as important as the writing of your actual paper. Some helpful resources include:

  • “Getting Started” Putting your ideas down on paper (or a screen) is an important step to beginning your writing process. In this section of Writer’s Web, you will find links to several sites that propose low-pressure pre-writing strategies. Experiment with different types of pre-writing techniques discussed in this section and see what works well for you.
  • "Building Writing Confidence" Writing Consultant G. M. Smith shares some techniques to make writing an easier experience.
  • “Where to Start a Paper” Here, you can begin to explore the thoughts you have informally. As you respond to the questions on this web site, you will begin to make sense of the assignment. You might be surprised by how much you are ready and able to write.
  • “How to Write an Outline” Writing Consultant Kathleen Lietzau explains the different types of outlines and the steps to take to make an effective outline. An outline lays out where you are headed before you get started, and this means that you are less likely to get lost along the way.

You can decrease the levels of stress and anxiety that accompany writing a paper by treating it as something that remains within your control.

  • Manage your paper so it appears to be anything but a huge, formless undertaking. Break up the paper into segments (a good number is about three) based on the specific areas or arguments you will explore. Then, work on one piece at a time.
  • Set goals, such as writing section “A” on Monday, and then reward yourself. Breaks and small rewards (buying a soda, calling a friend, watching a favorite television program, etc.) keep your mind from getting fatigued, and they reinforce your positive behavior.
  • Resist the urge to edit as you go along. This interrupts any thought flow you have, and it often wastes time in the long run. Focus on getting out your ideas first. You can stop and review later.
  • A meeting with a Writing Consultant can help make your paper more clear and coherent; you can discuss such issues as organization, support, and sentence structure. Click here to schedule an appointment.

Keep in mind that the University of Richmond offers a great, free resource: Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) . Academic concerns and stress are two of the biggest reasons why students meet with counselors. If you would like to make an appointment, visit the CAPS office at 201 Richmond Hall.


Ryan, Leigh. The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002. Print.
Sherwood, Steve. “Humor and the Serious Tutor.” Writing Center Journal 13.2 (1993): 3-12. Print.


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I taught my first psychology class in 1994 - and I almost always include some kind of paper assignment in each of my classes. Quick math says that I have probably read nearly 2,000 student papers. I think I’m qualified to give advice on this topic.

With a large batch of student papers set to hit my desk on Monday upcoming, it occurred to me that it might be nice to write a formal statement to help guide this process. Here it is.

Tell a Story

If you are writing a research paper, or any paper, you are telling a story. It should have a beginning, middle, and end. Further, it should read how you speak. Some students think that when they are writing for a college professor, they have to up their language and start using all kinds of fancy words and such. Please!!! We are training you to communicate effectively - not to show others how smart you are. We know you are smart - that is how you got into college in the first place!

While there are certain standards of formality that should be followed in your paper, at the end of the day, always remember that you are primarily trying to communicate some set of ideas to an audience. Thus, you should be keen to attend to the following:

  • Create an outline and use it as a roadmap.
  • Start from the top. That is, think about your actual question of interest - and start there - clearly and explicitly.
  • Make sure that every single sentence points to the next sentence. And every paragraph points to the next paragraph. And every section points to the next section.
  • Write how you speak - imagine that you are telling these ideas to someone - and always assume that someone is a layperson (just a regular old person - not an expert in the field).
  • Make the paper as long as it needs to be to tell your story fully and effectively - don’t let page limits drive your process (to the extent that this is possible).
  • All things equal, note that writing a high number of relatively brief sentences is a better approach than is writing a lower number of relatively long sentences. Often when students write long sentences, the main points get confused.

Use APA-Style for Good

Psychology students have to master APA format. This means using the formal writing style of the American Psychological Association. At first, APA style may well seem like a huge pain, but all of the details of APA style actually exist for a reason. This style was designed so that journal editors are able to see a bunch of different papers (manuscripts) that are in the same standardized format. In this context, the editor is then able to make judgments of the differential quality of the different papers based on content and quality. So APA style exists for a reason!

Once you get the basics down, APA style can actually be a tool to help facilitate great writing.

Write a Good Outline and Flesh it Out

For me, the best thing about APA Style is that it gets you to think in terms of an outline. APA style requires you to create headings and subheadings. Every paper I ever write starts with just an outline of APA-inspired headings and subheadings. I make sure that these follow a linear progression - so I can see the big, basic idea at the start - and follow the headings all the way to the end. The headings should be like the Cliff Notes of your story. Someone should be able to read your headings (just like the headings for this post) and get a basic understanding of the story that you are trying to communicate.

Another great thing about starting with an APA-inspired outline is that it affords you a very clear way to compartmentalize your work on the paper. If you are supposed to write a “big” college paper (maybe 20 or so pages), you may dread thinking about it - and you may put it off because you see the task as too daunting.

However, suppose you have an outline with 10 headings and subheadings. Now suppose that you pretty much have about two pages worth of content to say for each such heading. Well you can probably write two pages in about an hour or maybe less. So maybe you flesh out the first heading or two - then watch an episode of The Office or go for a run. Maybe you flesh out another section later in the day. And then tomorrow you wake up and you’ve completed 30% of your paper already. That doesn’t sound so dreadful, now, does it?

No One Wants to Hear Minutia about Other Studies in Your Research Paper!

I’m usually pretty tolerant of the work that my students submit to me. I know that college is all about learning and developing - and I always remind my students that the reason they are in school is to develop skills such as writing - so I don’t expect any 19-year-old to be Walt Whitman.

This said, there are some rookie mistakes that make me shake my head. A very common thing that students tend to do is to describe the research of others in unnecessary detail. For your introduction, you often have to provide evidence to support the points that you raise. So if you are writing a paper about the importance of, say, familial relatedness in affecting altruistic behavior, you probably need to cite some of the classic scientific literature in this area (e.g., Hamilton, 1964).

This said, please, I urge you, don’t describe more about these past studies that you cite than is necessary to tell your story! If your point is that there past work has found that individuals across various species are more likely to help kin than non-kin, maybe just say that! There is a time and a place for describing the details of the studies of others in your own research paper. On occasion, it is actually helpful to elaborate a bit on past studies. But from where I sit, it’s much more common to see students describe others’ studies in painstaking detail - in what looks like an attempt to fill up pages, to be honest!

As a guide on this issue, here are some things that I suggest you NEVER include in your paper:

  • The number of participants that were in someone else’s study.
  • Information form actual statistical tests from someone else’s study (e.g., The researchers found a significant F ratio (F(2,199) = 4.32, p = 008)).
  • The various conditions or variables that were included in some other study (e.g., These researchers used a mixed-ANOVA model with three between-subject factors and two within-subject factors).

With details like these, I say this: Who cares!? Honestly, when you mention the work of others, you are doing so for a purpose. You are citing just enough of their work to substantiate some point that you are making as you work toward creating a coherent story. Don’t ever lose sight of this fact!

Bottom Line

I’ve read nearly 2,000 student papers to this point in my life. And I hope I am lucky enough to read another 4,000+ before I am pushing up daisies. As I tell my students, if you are going to develop a single skill in college, let it be your ability to write in a clear, effective, and engaging manner.

Students who write psychology papers often find it difficult. That’s OK - that’s expected. If you are a college student, then don’t forget the fact that college is primarily about developing your skills - and no one expects students to be great writers at the age of 18. Developing your ability to write is largely the point of college.

Students often think that they have to write differently for a college research paper than for other purposes. They think that they have to sound smart and use lots of big words and long sentences. This is not the case. Everything you write has the ultimate purpose of communicating to an audience. Clear, straightforward, and narrative approaches to any writing assignment, then, are most likely to hit the mark.

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