Author: Jovi Nazareno, student at Harvard University Extension School.

Overdue for replacement, phrases such as “be rational,” “leave your emotions out of it,” or “just get it done” fail to value the reality of our experiences. What we feel—negative or positive—cannot and are not meant to be divorced from our thoughts, our bodies, or our actions. Emotions involve our mind as well as physiological states in our bodies.1, 2 While negative emotions tend to narrow our actions for quick responses needed for survival, positive emotions are thought to enable longer-term benefits.3 Thriving instead of surviving.

Yet the idea that you can experience either positive or negative emotions is much too simplistic. An emotion can be thought of not only in terms of its valence (positive/negative) but at least also by its intensity (high/low), duration, and secondary responses (how you feel about what you feel). This means you experience emotions in complex ways. So, if, like me, you find yourself worried at times about what will happen today, next week, or next year because of the wide-ranging impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, know that you are not alone. You are perhaps being asked to teach online, learn online, work online, find a new job, and/or cope at home in addition to adapting to the changing circumstances of daily life. While many changes are outside of our control, we can still question the ways in which we might find ourselves oversimplifying what we are or are not capable of.

“Either or” thinking has a way of trapping us into only two options despite all of the possibilities. Using the skill of writing as an example, I’ll describe how a circumstance or outcome that doesn’t feel “good” can influence what we think we can achieve.

Truthfully, although I generally enjoy writing, I have encountered (and still do encounter) times when I feel fearful, worried, or anxious about a writing project. Many fellow students and colleagues can probably empathize with me. But this is not because writing is supposed to be dreary; it because writing is arguably a highest form of thinking.4 We are constantly stretching our abilities just a little more, and sometimes, in the moment, this might not feel good. This calls for detailing how and why fear, anxiety, or apprehension impacts writing, as a way toward understanding the intricacies of teaching and learning to write. How do negative emotions affect learning? Why do writers “survive” a project or avoid written work instead of thriving?

Pulled down the spiral

My first downward spiral with writing happened during high school when low scores on timed writing exams opposed my self-perception as a writer. My belief is that a deep-set uneasiness about writing can be traced to “either or” ways of thinking. If we think we are stuck in place because we are either “good” at doing something or not, and we place value on being that something, we can become fearful of the “bad” outcome. The spiral begins.

The timed writing exam made me uncomfortable because the outcome (i.e., low scores) led me to question who I thought I was and changed the impression I left with the teacher. Scoring low on a written assignment/exam hacked away at my self-concept as a writer because I failed to separate feedback from my identity. This one particular writing task became associated with my being so afraid of failing as a person, student, and writer, that I learned to avoid it altogether (e.g., pretending to be sick). Even just the thought or reminder of an upcoming timed practice was enough to make me worrisome.

Threats in the spiral

Working under a fear or anxious response system changes the way we process information in the brain.5, 6 This is often referred to as the stress response. The way we think changes to a survival mode meant for immediate decisions to save our lives from danger. Obviously, getting ready to fight or run away is not the most appropriate nor helpful reaction to a writing prompt (or any exam or school assignment for that matter). Yet when we associate an activity as being a huge “risk” we can habituate a fearful reaction, changing the way we process information in that situation.

This supposed “life-saving” reaction lowered my performance, thereby feeding into my initial worry that I am not a writer.7 The “either or” logic and downward spiral look like this:

Ultimately, when we value a label or skill, failing to meet those expectations can be a scary threat. When we’re so afraid to fail that we experience the stress response, we are not setting ourselves up for the best possible outcome. Of more concern, if we see only two options, success or failure, and failure seems most likely because we’re just not “good at it”, we may not try very much or may not even try at all.

Stop going down to start going up

Recognizing and identifying the downward spiral serves as a great first step. The next step involves intentional activity to break the cycle, which requires an understanding of breaking old connections/associations before building new ones. In the case of an apprehensive writer, multiple layers of associations leading to these feelings may need to be peeled away and re-established, for example:

Thankfully, timed writing was a fleeting phenomenon. Outside of standardized exams, rarely do I find myself in an extremely limited timeframe in which I must write. Further, by learning to recognize when I’m “spiraling” based on what I feel happening in my body (e.g., increasing heart rate, tension), I can then focus on my breathe and re-frame my thoughts. Many mentors and family members have also been encouraging of me. It is from them that I began to understand that different writing situations call for different skills that can be developed.

Rather than attempt to be rational, leave emotions out, or just get it done, let’s accept and value how emotions are part of writing because they are part of learning. This enables us to recognize the potential downward spiral and cultivate the more robust patterns, mindset, and writing skills we desire for people.

That’s interesting but so what?

In times of hardship, you might be asked to make uncomfortable changes. For example, you might be asked to teach online for the first time, attend meetings and courses fully online, use new tools to work from home, apply to online jobs, or shelter in place. When you value success in these circumstances and you find yourself stumbling a bit to make everything work, know that the stumbling is simply part of learning and adapting. What matters is not whether you get things right the first time, but how you grow from each trial. You are not either a success or a failure. You are not either a good or bad teacher, student, or worker. Success can come from failures, praise from effort, and growth from feedback.

1 Immordino‐Yang, M. H. (2011). Implications of affective and social neuroscience for educational theory. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 43(1), 98–103. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-5812.2010.00713.x

2 Damasio, A., & Carvalho, G. B. (2013). The nature of feelings: Evolutionary and neurobiological origins. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 14(2), 143–152. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3403

3 Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Chapter one—Positive emotions broaden and build. In P. Devine & A. Plant (Eds.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 47, pp. 1–53). https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-407236-7.00001-2

4 Tokuhama-Espinosa, T., Nazareno, J., Rappleye, C., & Kaye, M. (2019). Infographic: Writing as the highest form of thinking. Retrieved from https://thelearningsciences.com/site/portfolio-items/writing-process-2/?lang=en

5 Sprouts. (2017). Are you afraid of exams? [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D64TZ-wcLCY

6Lupien, S. J., Maheu, F., Tu, M., Fiocco, A., & Schramek, T. E. (2007). The effects of stress and stress hormones on human cognition: Implications for the field of brain and cognition. Brain and Cognition, 65(3), 209–237. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bandc.2007.02.007

7 Bruning, R. H., & Kauffman, D. F. (2016). Self-efficacy beliefs and motivation in writing development. In C. A. MacArthur, S. Graham, & J. Fitzgerald (Eds.), Handbook of writing research (2nd ed., pp. 160–173). New York: The Guilford Press.