7 ways to deal with writing anxiety

Reading time: Less than 5 minutes

Ever wondered if you might be dealing with a writing anxiety disorder? Here’s some detailed advice on how to respond…

While many people believe that depression is the most common health issue facing the developed world, in fact, the biggest challenge is something else. It’s anxiety.  

Anxiety disorders are, in fact, the most common form of mental illness in society, affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year. 

There are anxiety disorders in my own family, although I’ve been lucky enough to escape that particular hammer. But I’ve worked with many clients who’ve had to deal with the specific and fearsome monster of writing anxiety.

Yes, it’s a real thing. Go to Google Scholar and you’ll get more than 2 million hits from peer-reviewed journals. I started thinking more about writing anxiety last week when I read the lovely memoir by Mark Saltzman, The Man in The Empty Boat, outlining his many-year struggle with writing anxiety. 

Writing anxiety usually presents as physical symptoms: your palms start to sweat, your heart beats as though you’re in a marching band, you feel dizzy and light-headed. Some people even get panic attacks. And before long, these physical symptoms morph into a desire to procrastinate. Many anguished writers tell me that they’re lazy but I know this isn’t true.

Procrastination, in fact, is often a logical and intelligent reaction to what life is throwing at them. For example, if they were hitting their heads against a brick wall, they’d get a headache and their heads might start to bleed. Both of these troubling occurrences would make them want to procrastinate about hitting their head. In other words, they’d be making an intelligent decision, not a lazy one.

The same is true of writers facing anxiety. They don’t want to write because the work makes them feel too acutely uncomfortable. 

If you believe writing anxiety is a challenge you might be facing, here are seven ways to manage the issue:

1-Deal first with any other physical challenges you might also 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. I know 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 give detailed instructions in another blog post on the subject and I also 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 enough 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. Even better, 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. And if you’re of the school of thought that all exercise is loathsome (I know my father-in-law felt this way) then start with exercising for a single minute. Once your body becomes accustomed to sweat, you’ll wonder how you lived without exercise.

4-Consider CBT methods. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or CBT treats a wide range of disorders including anxiety, depression, phobias, addictions and insomnia. It is often more successful than drugs and, even better, has never been turned into a multi-million-dollar industry because the psychiatrist who developed the treatment didn’t choose to trademark it. 

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. You don’t even have to see a therapist to do CBT. There’s a tremendous workbook called Mind Over Moodthat can teach you to do it for yourself. In a previous post, I’ve outlined a 7-step procedure given in the book that will help writers manage their own negative automatic thoughts. Give it a try! This process really works.

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. 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. I’ve written before about how to break the habit of editing while you write. Breaking this habit is especially important for anyone facing writing anxiety. The time for evaluating should come only after writing and after incubating. In other words, procrastinate about editing!

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 blocks, 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.

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Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. If you already know you want to apply, go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours. 

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My video podcast last week addressed how to improve your research. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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Have you ever struggled with writing anxiety? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by June 30/20 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!