Fun fact about writing: it can be used as a calming, meditative tool. Not so fun fact about writers: they are more likely to suffer from mental illnesses, particularly anxiety disorders. And since we tend to treat writing like our job, sometimes writers start to see writing as a stressful, rather than meditative practice.
When it comes to mental health issues, we anxious darlings are often given the advice to be present, to not overthink, to not lose ourselves in our overactive imaginations. As someone who has struggled with her mental health (generalized anxiety disorder, in particular) I am for all forms of self-care, and my general advice in life, regardless of circumstance is, “do what you gotta do.” Sometimes, however, as both an anxious person and a writer, I need to be able to nurture both my desire to not be in a state of constant heightened panic and my overthinking, overimaginative, creative nature. To try to explore that tension, I did what we all do. I got creative. I used what I’ve learned about anxiety, meditation, and writing exercises over the years and began cataloging the things that worked for me.
Below are 10 tips for trying to cope with anxious feelings during the writing process. First and foremost, however, please remember to take care of yourself. Writing is like any other job in the sense that your health and well-being are more important than deadlines and word counts. Since we are often our own bosses as well as our harshest critics, writing can quickly turn into a toxic job. If you feel productivity is low, try being a better boss. Get creative. And remember that taking time away from work when we need to nurture our mental health is sometimes necessary. And that’s okay!
1. Time your writing. Whether you are working with limited or unstructured time, sometimes the freedom of writing can be paralytically daunting. We end up wasting so much precious time that could be spent on writing worrying about how to start the perfect sentence. We’ve all been there. We get excited about a project, have grand visions about the big picture, and then when it’s time to write that first sentence, we freeze in apprehension. We feel unable, or even unworthy to start writing. So we sit and stare, walk our dogs, clean, or watch an entire series on Netflix and try not to feel like s*** about not writing a damn thing all day.
When I have trouble starting organically, I use the timer on my oven to set aside a certain amount of time in which I must be present with my work to free write. Freewriting helps reduce my anxiety by removing the layer of censoring everything I write. I give that judicious, s***-stirring part of my brain a timeout so I can keep writing.
Set a timer for how long you’ll write without a break (no bathroom, refilling coffee/water, phone, internet). Start small, 5 or 10 minutes. Write down literally anything that comes to mind, and resist making edits as you do. Pretend the delete button is broken. Rip off your eraser if you need to. When the timer goes off, verbally congratulate or pat yourself on the back for your accomplishment. If you can, set the timer for longer, working up to 30 minutes or an hour. When you feel you are in the groove, turn the timer off and allow yourself the luxury of working on whatever writing you need to. Practice the art of saving work for the sake of the work that went into it rather than deleting everything because you don’t think it’s perfect.
Don’t be hard on yourself if you get distracted or if it seems that time is dragging on. Remember that just as important as setting time aside for an MFA, a writing workshop, or a residency is making sure that we set aside time to honor our process when no one is watching. Keep a log of the time you spend in full writing mode if it helps to have a visual cue. If you spend even just a little bit of measurable time writing you’ll feel less anxious about how much you’re not writing or how much you still need to write.
2. Practice reading your work out loud. Ideally, at some point in your writing career, you’ll have the opportunity to read your work aloud to an audience. And while it’s not ideal, I know, you might be anxious the first few times you do. It sounds odd, but my favorite time to practice reading my work out loud is in the middle of an anxiety attack, because then if I’m anxious on stage, I’m more prepared to cope with the symptoms. Also, focusing on your breathing, your volume, and your posture while you’re reading helps you relax. As a bonus, I usually find a few things to edit or revise on the second or third read through so it helps me get the ball rolling for editing, too.
3. Make a list of places to submit your work. If you need some time to get into the less-anxious mindset to write, make a short list of places to submit to. Read the latest stories and poems on your favorite zine’s website. Look at the pretty art. Feel the creative energy in you rising up, and know that you are an artist. Feel it in your bones, the strength of it, and remember that strength is always there, even when you feel your weakest.
4. Stretch if you can. Imagine your left side as one thing you’d like to write about and the right side as something you’ve written and are proud of. Slowly alternate stretching between them, spending at least 30 seconds on each muscle if you can, without straining yourself or pushing to the point of discomfort. Let your mind alternate between the rush of possibility and the anchor of reality. Gently sit up straight and roll your neck if you can, keeping your tongue pushed against the roof of your mouth. Come to a comfortable seated position and let everything relax. Appreciate movement for movement’s sake. Appreciate the movement of your creative energy for your creative energy’s sake. If it is part of your process, it is productive. Take that, anxiety.
5. Get off your computer. Writing by hand can help you visibly see your progress and remember what you’ve written, while encourages free writing. Alternatively, if you already have what you’re working on typed, print out all the pages you have. Edit it by hand, with any ink but red (it gives you bad vibes). Use scissors and tape to literally cut and paste any sentences or paragraphs you want to move.
When you can visually see how much work you do, it makes you feel like you’ve actually done something, which makes your anxiety be like, oh, I guess I am a worthwhile person and maybe I should back off on all these thoughts of impending, ceaseless suck? Cool.
6. Curl up with a good book. Pull a dozen or so books that you love off the shelf and sit with them. Lie on your stomach if you can and just spend a moment flipping through them, smelling them, appreciating the colors on the cover. Find a dog ear and read some words on the page. Turn over on your back and gently lay one on your face (not too heavy, though!) Breathe slowly in through your nose and out through your mouth. Think of ways to describe the smell to someone who has never smelled a book before with concrete descriptive language, opening up each word. What do you mean by musty? What do you mean by sweet?
7. Create a ceremony that makes your writing space feel sacred. Every now and then, it helps me to remember that I don’t just write because it’s the business I’m in, but because it’s my higher calling, my art, my purpose. When I give it my utmost respect by treating it as such, I am also practicing some good self-love by saying, hey, I’m here, Muse, I’m ready, and I’m worthy. It helps me get into the flow faster, my ego falls away quicker, and I focus on what’s in front of me in my sanctuary rather than the modern terrors that await me outside like so much Claude Frollo.
If you have trouble thinking of a ceremony for yourself, try a variation on one of mine. Light a candle and think of a loved one who has encouraged you. Imagine them telling you how proud they are of you for following your passion, for expressing something so sacred as your truth with your creative gift. Then write. Keep the candle next to you lit as a reminder that what you’re doing is supreme, and that no one else but you can do what you’re doing. There are people who want you to succeed, and there are words inside of you that want you to write them down, and you are doing just what you need to to make it happen. When you’ve reached a stopping point, allow yourself gratitude for your dedication to your craft, and blow out the candle.
8. Make a list of things you are trying to avoid in your writing. Nothing makes me feel so anxious when I’m writing as a writing block. Not just because my writing stalls and that alone can cause overwhelming feelings, but because those blocks are usually tied to the subject matter being traumatic for me, and I know I will have to confront those traumas to write through it. And that is so much emotional work!
If and when you feel ready to do so, try to pinpoint your blocks. Do you know what you’re avoiding? Is it one scene in particular? Describing a character’s emotions because confronting those emotions makes you uncomfortable? Are you writing about something so close to home that you feel anxious every time you confront it and end up avoiding it all together, or relying on vague or cliche writing? If you need to, give what you’re avoiding a fictitious name and write it down on a piece of paper. What do you need to do to keep yourself safe when you approach writing about it? Reach out before to friends if you need to, plan a talk with your therapist or best friend afterward, or just make time for your self-care routine. Write about it in an environment that makes you feel safe in small spurts. Take breaks and eat something. Whenever you need to not think about it, put the piece of paper with its name in a box. If it tries to get out, put something heavy on top of the box. Insist that it stay in there until you’re ready to deal with it again.
Avoiding things can add anxiety on top of anxiety, and not writing what we need to write about can be the rusty nail that gets stuck in the giant snowball barreling towards us. Recognizing the things you’re avoiding can help you be more productive in the long run, though it is never easy. Find a support community if you need to, and be patient with yourself.
9. Recognize that you’re anxious. Sometimes just saying, “I’m feeling anxious today but I’m going to do my best to work on this project,” is enough to bring a bit of peace of mind. Remember that you’ve survived your anxiety before, and you will again. You’ve written bad ass things before, and you will again.
10. Reach out. Studies have shown that writers, especially those working on longer projects, do better when they share work with even one other writer, and the same thing goes for talking about our anxiety. Find someone you can talk to about any anxiety you experience towards your writing or during your work. They might be going through the exact same thing. Remember to share and celebrate each other’s successes, whether it’s starting a new poem or submitting a work to a journal or getting a piece accepted.
The practice of respecting someone else’s time by making sure you have work to exchange and thoughtful comments on their writing will translate to how you relate to your own work as well. Sometimes the difference between an anxious feeling and a panic attack while I’m writing is having something good to say about my work to counter all the bad things bubbling up from the despair-generating pit of self-loathing.
Whatever helps you celebrate your whole, complex, creative self, take time to practice it. And if you have more tips for coping with anxiety while writing, please feel free them here.