Whee Write

Dealing with Writing Anxiety: Using Behavioral and Cognitive Behavioral Strategies to Decrease Writing-Related Stress

Katherine K.


Even the best writers, at some point or another, experience writing anxiety. There are many ways people may cope with writing anxiety. Often, the way someone copes with writing anxiety conforms to a similar pattern they use when responding to other stressors in their life; these are called “coping styles”. Traditionally, various coping styles have been delineated into two broad categories: approach and avoidant coping styles (Herman-Stabl, Stemmler, & Petersen, 1995).  Approach based strategies are also sometimes called “problem-focused coping”, as these strategies are directed towards permanently resolving the stress inducing situation in some way. For example, choosing to go to the writing center for help or scheduling a visit with their professor are approach coping strategies to deal with writing anxiety. These types of strategies are what are considered adaptive, in that they involve resolving the source of the anxiety. On the opposite end of the spectrum are avoidant based coping strategies, also sometimes called emotion focused coping, as they tend to involve suppressing negative emotions (i.e., anxiety)  in some way (Herman-Stabl, Stemmler, & Petersen, 1995). They are considered less adaptive, most of the time, in that they do not resolve the anxiety inducing situation – they merely prolong them, and usually increase anxiety. For example, watching Netflix or going to a party to hang out with friends in order to avoid thinking about a writing assignment are avoidance coping strategies to dealing with writing anxiety. Obviously, taking either of these actions in response to writing anxiety simply reduce it temporarily – when we return from our party or turn of the television, the anxiety returns and we have less time to complete our assignment.

Generally speaking people seem to have inclinations towards using one style over the other, although whether this is innate or learned is unknown (though it is likely some combination of both).  However, even the most approach-oriented person will use an avoidant strategy at times and vice versa. Personally, I tend to use an approach style of coping – as soon as I am confronted with a problem, I begin generating possible solutions. This is true of me even in social contexts, often to the dismay of those close to me. As soon as someone tells me about their own problems, I tend to begin listing off suggestions about which actions they could take. However, there have been times, especially while in graduate school where everyone is continually facing new and daunting challenges, that I have used avoidant coping strategies. When people are faced with a challenge, or something new, they are far more likely to become overwhelmed with negative thoughts and emotions, and use an avoidant coping strategy. Problem solving is simply a great deal harder when you feel overwhelmed. Luckily there are plenty of ways (as I have learned) to overcome these overwhelming feelings that can be applied to writing anxiety (or any other stressful situation).

There are two general approaches I’ve come to use to manage writing anxiety: behavioral and cognitive behavioral approaches.

Behavioral strategies, or behavioral modification strategies, involves shaping behavior using a variety of methods (Bernstein, 2013). Some of the more common and well-known methods are positive reinforcement (rewarding one-self to increase the behavior), negative reinforcement (taking away something negative to increase a behavior), punishment (introducing something aversive to decrease a behavior), and structuring the environment in such a way that it’s more likely to produce a particular behavior (Bernstein, 2013). For example, to deal with writing assignment anxiety, I usually break up my assignment into manageable increments and reward myself with a 10-15 minute break after completing each increment. This would be an example of using positive reinforcement. On the other hand, deciding that if I completed my assignment that day, that I could skip washing my dishes (which I hate), would be an example of using a negative reinforcement strategy.  To structure my environment to increase the likelihood of completing my writing assignment, I’ll typically turn off the television, put my phone in another room, or turn off my wireless internet (I’m easily distracted when anxious). One way to use punishment would be to decide if you didn’t work on your assignment for 30 minutes, you would force yourself to do 10 push-ups. Whatever method you choose to use, there are countless options, and you should tailor an approach specific to you (Bernstein, 2013).

Cognitive behavioral approaches involve altering one’s thoughts, to alter one’s emotions, which alters one’s behavior (Beck, 2011). This method is effective when a person is engaging in negative self-talk in response to a particular situation, such as a writing assignment. From a cognitive behavioral perspective, it is not the writing assignment itself that is causing the distress, it is the negative, distorted, inaccurate, thoughts that are. To reduce writing anxiety one needs to identify the thoughts, and replace them with more positive ones. Now, it’s important to remember that this approach is more challenging for some – it is not easy to change one’s own thoughts particularly when they are automatic – nevertheless, through practice and persistence this can be a particularly effective method. There are a number of different ways our thoughts can be distorted. Some common ways include overgeneralizing, black or white thinking, and catastrophizing (though there are many others). The following are examples of each and examples of more positive, realistic thoughts one might use to replace them with in the context of a writing assignment (Beck, 2011).

Overgeneralizing: “The last time I turned in an assignment to this professor, I got a bad grade, so I’ll definitely get a bad grade on this assignment as well”.

It’s easy to see how this thought is illogical, but we don’t usually analyze our thoughts. The person who is having this thought is making a prediction about their performance based upon a singular event. A more realistic replacement for this thought would be “I got a bad grade on the last writing assignment, but I’ve done well on others in other classes. Also, I’ve gotten feedback from this professor, and know what her expectations are, so I’ll definitely do better on this assignment.”

All or nothing thinking: “I’m a terrible writer, so I’ll do badly on this assignment”.

Here the person having this thought is thinking in absolutes. A good strategy would be to practice thinking instead, “I’ve done well on other assignments, so I’m obviously not a terrible writer”.

Catastrophizing: “If I do badly on this assignment, I’m going to fail the class. If I fail the class then that means I’m not smart enough to succeed in college”.

In this case, the person is clearly jumping to conclusions. A more realistic replacement thought would be “I don’t know yet if I’ll do badly on this assignment. Even if I did, it doesn’t mean I will fail the class. Also, if I did manage to fail the class, it doesn’t mean I can’t succeed, or am not smart enough, it just means that I need to retake the class and learn from my mistakes.”

EVERYONE, at some point or another will have writing anxiety. Part of being a successful writer means learning methods to overcome it. It’s important to try out multiple methods to find out which works best for you.





Beck, J. S. (2011). Cognitive behavior therapy: Basics and beyond. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Bernstein, D. (2013). Essentials of psychology. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.

Herman-Stabl, M. A., Stemmler, M., & Petersen, A. C. (1995). Approach and avoidant coping: Implications for adolescent mental health. Journal of Youth and Adolescence24(6), 649-665.doi: oi:10.1007/BF01536949


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