A few years ago another academic and I were walking with a student (“Kiki”) who said that she always handed in essay assignments two weeks after they are due — the last day before she would receive a 0. Each time she lost 20% of the total possible points due to an automatic penalty of 2% per work day late. Over the long run she was ruining her chances of going on to postgraduate study. The other academic walking with us started to tell Kiki that the university had now extended the penalty period to three weeks with a maximum penalty of 30%, but I elbowed him right away and shook my head. I knew that if Kiki heard this news she would change to submitting three weeks late and suffer an extra 10% penalty. I knew that because I understand phobias, and Kiki had one — essay-writing phobia.
This phobia involves fear and avoidance of writing an assigned essay and/or submitting the essay. In addition to lateness penalties, the avoidance can lead to last-minute writing with its attendant stress, poor quality, and low marks. This phobia is more common than you might think.
What causes essay-writing phobia? The causes are similar for all types of phobias. The main factors likely to contribute here are genetic, biological predispositions to feel anxious, perfectionism in general, setting an unrealistically high goal for the essay, low self-efficacy for writing in general or for the specific essay, and low levels of self-control. Two other possible factors: Avoidance helps the person feel much better in the short run by reducing anxiety, and avoidance with frantic last-minute writing gives the person an ego-protecting excuse for earning a low mark.
So what is the way out of essay-writing phobia? I’ll suggest 10 strategies in order of value for most individuals:
1. Change your goal to something realistic and valuable, like doing your best under the circumstances or submitting on time or ending your avoidance. Put aside goals of being perfect and impressing the heck out of someone.
2. Gradually expose yourself to what you fear. Write the easiest part of the essay first — start with your name or the title. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Then write the next easiest part and so on, all the way to submitting. Praise yourself for courage at each step. Use my favorite definition of courage: Doing the right thing even tho scared. There is a great deal of research evidence that gradual exposure helps eliminate phobias.
3. Discuss your fears with someone who cares about your welfare or write in a journal about your fears. Bringing them out in the open will help you deal with them.
4. Calm yourself thru deep breathing, meditation, or some other means.
5. Focus on the task at hand — tell yourself what to do next on the assignment. Think that you are writing a draft that you will improve later, if necessary. Positive thoughts often lead to positive behavior.
6. Challenge self-defeating thoughts such as “Ï can’t do this” by thinking clearly about what “this” is and by looking for evidence from the past about whether you can do it.
7. Think of times you have written good essays and submitted on time.
8. Think of how you overcame some fear before in your life.
9. Think of individuals you admire who acted bravely.
10. Write in a new location or using a different method, e.g., paper rather than laptop. The change of procedure might give you a new perspective or expectation.
Those are my thoughts. For a case study describing treatment of essay-writing phobia, see http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0005796786900422.
What helps you reduce essay writing fear and avoidance?
John Malouff, PhD,
Associate Professor of Psychology