Anxiety. I might be kneeling over a chopping block with this, but I know I’m not the only writer who has prepared that perfect email — author bio, fully researched the agent/publisher/editor so you know exactly the time they leave their house for work, attached your fully blossomed baby, and re-read the correspondence another three times — to have your finger suddenly become immobile over the ‘send’ button.
Amygdala-itis is what I call it. No such word, I know, but how do you describe that awful rush of everything you tried to allude to when your character faces their darkest moment — just let me write this all down…
If you want to know how come we get all this brain block, dry mouth, palpitations, God! – pain in the chest, you can blame the Amygdala. The lizard brain. It’s a tiny lump-thing in the base of the brain that, to be honest, should have been canceled way before J.K. Rowlings, or the 7:52 am from Bristol. Yes, our lovely Fear Center, whose duties include detecting danger and making sure we know about it.
What’s so dangerous about writing? Everything it seems, from picking or not picking up the pen, writing too much or too little, not writing in the right genre, not knowing which genre it is, knowing that what you’ve written could be done so much better, and all that other anxiety crap.
But maybe it’s not the writing that’s the problem. Maybe it’s the crap that crowds out the writerly words. The crap that originates from how what’s left of our primitive brain works.
Well, these tips might help cancel out the lizard stuff and the use of the word “crap” for anything other than the bodily function.
1. Be a Tree
The thing with anxiety is it can tip us, unbalance our senses, send us off into a dark vortex where we lose reality. Like being uprooted in a storm. The tree thing is a grounding exercise. It’s about switching awareness to your physical-self and where that self is at that very moment.
- Sitting: Feeling what parts of the body have contact with the chair.
- Standing: Being aware of the pressure under your foot, with the floor.
- About to take a hammer to your computer: Feel the smooth wood in your hand, slightly warm, and slipping with the perspiration on your skin…
In just a few seconds, it will break that bond with your tattered awareness of the situation.
2. Breathe through Your Anxiety
You can follow through with this exercise, which is really good to control physical anxiety symptoms, like dizziness and feeling like you can’t breathe. It can also bring you out of the messy thoughts. You can do it in any position, save crouched over your laptop with the hammer.
- Become aware of your breathing: Put one hand on your chest, the other on your stomach. Which moves the most? I’ll bet it’s the one on your chest.
The idea is to make the one on your stomach move more than your chest, because that’s where the bottom of your lungs are, and that’s what we want to fill up. Deep breath in, push the belly out. Deep breath out, and really push the air out. Don’t worry about not having oxygen in your lungs, there’s plenty in them. When we panic, we gulp in little breaths and don’t breathe out properly. You will be OK.
Keep on breathing like this for a minute. The dizziness will subside. You might feel tired (another term for “more relaxed”), and that whatever part of the writing process you were steamed about doesn’t feel that important. Because:
3. It’s All about Perception, and Perspective
How our mind thinks about or understands a situation is based on what’s happened in the past. We have all developed our unique viewpoint of the world, and it’s different to anyone else’s. That’s why the perfect book recommended by a best friend might not hit the mark. Reading is a very personal experience because of our perception, so please don’t break up over a lousy story. But it’s worth asking what it is that your friend loved about it. They might highlight something you didn’t see.
Back to Writing and Perception. This has the potential to get very deep, with everyone’s reality being different, but the manuscripts we are working on, have poured our whole heart into, will be assimilated into a reader’s mind differently than how it formed in ours.
That way of thinking also works for the deadline we have set ourselves, with good intention, is only as important as we believe it to be. Actually, us writers should be experts on perception. We write from different points of view, and can see the whole story. The question is, can we sit back, away from the piece we are writing? Look at it from a different perspective? Will we die if it isn’t finished / perfect / loved? Will the world end? I always find that the “No” should be followed by “and,” not “but.”
Yes, but what if it’s a deadline set by someone else?
4. Sort the Nuts and Bolts
My own lizard brain doesn’t allow for practical organization, but there are other parts in the surrounding tissue that do. I’m very much a pantser, but am realizing that I get more things finished with a plan.
No more being overwhelmed! There’s like pages and pages of organizers, brightly colored ‘to do’ pads/downloads on popular online sites, Ready to Click buy. And we can deface them with our pens (you probably also have lots of fancy notebooks in drawers that are too ‘special’ to write on). Or we can use actual online devices as brain extensions — gosh, even plot and structure stories.
If, like me, you have signed up for too many courses, competitions, freelance work, etc, consider what’s the most important task to complete when all that stuff to do is spewing out of our heads like larva!
Here’s an exercise that might help.
- Write everything down that needs to be done, then get a clean piece of paper, divide into four quarters.
- Top left: Absolute Priorities. Stuff that needs immediate attention (and that might be picking up your blood pressure tablets from the pharmacy).
- Top right: Important. The jobs that need doing but not straight away schedule them (in the newly bought planner)
- Bottom Left: Delegate. Things that can be done by others / family – like shopping (I hate shopping), editing a few drafts in, proofreading (I gave a final draft of a novel to my neighbor, an ex-English teacher, and she sat out in the sun with a red pen and a glass of wine).
- Bottom right: The Delete list. I struggled with this as I thought every item I’d written down was important, but back to perception, seeing the words made me realize, some things are never meant to be done, so chuck ‘em! OK, maybe some are important, but not today. This list is not ad infinitum. It will change as we need it to.
That’s right, there is order, and we have control of it.
5. Buddy up to Beat Anxiety
“A problem shared is a problem halved,”’ goes the old saying. Social media is a good place to find your tribe. There are very supportive writerly communities on Facebook and Twitter that totally get where we are coming from.
I have almost once nearly joined a physical writers group, but found virtual ones really helpful. It’s just amazing to find that other writers have similar hang ups, and suffer from the same types of anxiety. In a writer’s group, we easily get into supporting each other. It makes me feel really good if I can give a suggestion someone’s not tried before. Just being part of a community where I can talk about “arcs” and “tropes” without having to explain is just the bestest thing. And the good thing about zoom and the like is I can turn the camera off if I’m feeling shy.
Brilliant. Now that we’ve looked at potential ways of reducing anxiety, we can kick back and enjoy the writing process, because that’s what it’s about.
Julie writes speculative fiction and loves interesting characters. She’s developing an interest in fiction that brings on a little bit of self-compassion and empowerment. Her house balances on the eroding coast of Yorkshire UK. She was a psychiatric nurse for 18 years, and has lived with anxiety three times as long. They are separated now, but meet sometimes in dark places.