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Anxiety before a big test or presentation is common — and it can lead to a poor performance. A recent study published in the journal Science suggests that spending a few minutes putting your worries on paper beforehand can measurably improve results.

College students who took a challenging, high-stakes math test were more likely to have better performances than students in a control group if they wrote about their feelings for 10 minutes before the testing session, according to researcher Sian Beilock, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago and author of Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To (Free Press, 2010). Those who took the high-stakes test after writing about their concerns improved their performance by 5 percent; scores of those in the control group sank 12 percent when stakes ratcheted up.

For Beilock, the results were no surprise. “We know that in stressful situations, worries co-opt the brainpower that we normally use to focus on tests,” she says. “[Writing] seems to be one way to prevent those worries from popping up so that we have all of our cognitive powers at our disposal.”

The research could have larger implications for anyone facing a stressful situation, whether it’s pitching a client or giving a speech. By writing down your concerns, you can focus on the most important task at hand, says Beilock. “In a way, you’re downloading your worries on paper, and that frees up your cognitive resources.”

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