Anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental illness in society, affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older.
Many more of us deal with the very specific and fearsome monster of writing anxiety. Go to Google Scholar and you’ll get more than two million hits from peer-reviewed journals on this topic. You might also read the lovely memoir by Mark Saltzman, The Man in The Empty Boat, which outlines his prolonged struggle with writing anxiety.
Writing anxiety usually presents as physical symptoms: Your palms start to sweat, your heart thumps hard and fast, and you may feel dizzy and light-headed. Some people even get panic attacks. Before long, these physical symptoms morph into a desire to procrastinate.
If writing anxiety is a challenge for you, here are seven ways to manage the issue:
1. Deal first with any other physical challenges you might be facing. Pay particular attention to dehydration, hunger and lack of sleep. These may be the straws that break the camel’s back. I have an old friend who has hay fever (trust me, this story is relevant.) During the spring, when pollen is at its peak, he also finds he is allergic to beer and chocolate. Of course, he is allergic to beer and chocolate all year – cue sad violins — but he doesn’t feel the effects of these allergies when he’s not overwhelmed by hay fever. Don’t let relatively easy-to-deal-with challenges — like getting enough food or sleep — tip you over into writing anxiety.
2. Meditate. Some people think that meditation is really hard, perhaps even a little bit frightening. First, understand that meditating is not about “emptying” your mind; it’s more about observing it. Also, it’s possible (indeed, wise) to start very small – with no more than five minutes. Many writers find meditation to be a supremely helpful practice. (I encourage you to check out the book 10% Happier by Dan Harris.) But if mediation seems too much for you, consider simply monitoring your breathing.
3. Get ample exercise. The great thing about exercise is that it will help to get rid of the adrenaline that makes your heart beat faster, because you can control physical symptoms with physical activity. Exercise will also release the so-called “happy hormones” otherwise known as endorphins that will make you feel more relaxed and comfortable. You don’t have to run five miles. Even a brisk 20-minute walk will help. Make the exercise something you enjoy, rather than dread.
4. Consider CBT methods. Cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT treats a wide range of disorders including anxiety, depression, phobias, addictions and insomnia. It is often more successful — and sustainable — than drugs as a long-term treatment.
CBT is not a type of positive thinking. Instead, it focuses on challenging your negative thoughts and making a rational plan for how to face them. So, for example, if you feel unable to write because the project feels too big and overwhelming for you, you learn to divide the project into smaller, more manageable steps. Or you learn to review articles you’ve successfully written in the past, to buoy your spirits.
5. Resist the urge to evaluate. Many people with writing anxiety suffer acutely under the unwaveringly harsh judgement they make of themselves and their writing. Instead of trying to convince yourself that you’re “not a bad writer,” I suggest you simply shut down the urge to evaluate or scrutinize yourself. Don’t allow yourself to even consider the notion of whether your writing is good, bad or indifferent. When you’re writing, your only job is to write, not to evaluate. The time for evaluating should come only after writing and after incubating.
6. Use writing rituals. Rituals such as time of day at which you write, the place where you write, or what you do before you write will all help make writing seem like a supportive and friendly habit, rather than a burden. Such rituals — whether they require having a super clean desk, or having your pencils sharpened just so — decrease stress, increase your power and make the writing process seem easier.
7. Understand that everyone encounters obstacles while writing. Even professional writers. Don’t adopt a “poor little me,” or an “I’m the only person in the world who feels this way,” attitude. Facing obstacles, dealing with problems, struggling with words and sentences are the name of the game for all writers. This is just what we do. Consider yourself an apprentice and understand that, like all apprentices, you need to learn how to deal with specific challenges. This need doesn’t make you inept or a bad writer. It just makes you someone who needs to learn more.
We all get better — at everything — with practice. Don’t let writing anxiety stop you from getting that practice.