It’s 4:00 a.m., and I’m staring at a blank Word document for no good reason.
I should be asleep. This is a thought I’ve had many times in the hours leading up to 4:00 a.m., accompanied by other rational realizations like, “Hey, you’re not on deadline,” and “Your blog doesn’t need a new post right now,” and the one I find hardest to accept, “It’s okay to spend a full day without writing anything new.”
An example: Every day, I make it my goal to write something. An article, a blog post, a journal entry, the rough draft of a bad poem, an email, whatever. As long as I’ve put forth some effort, I can comfortably check that off my to-do list and go about my other responsibilities.
This is a fairly modest goal, and one that would be easy to fulfill if my anxious brain could stay out of its own way. Instead, what might only take 30 minutes to an hour (or two) of focused attention gets derailed by hour after hour of procrastinating. I’ll binge-watch sitcoms on Netflix (One Day at a Time is just *too* good, okay?), reorganize my closet, wash the dishes, play with the cats, even sketch out future writing projects before I’ll put a single word down on the page.
More often than not, I don’t get around to writing anything until well after midnight. I read somewhere — probably while scrolling through Twitter in yet another manic fit of procrastination — that your brain is less inhibited at night, which in turn allows you to access greater depth of emotion and creative expression. That may explain why my anxiety begins to melt away in the very early hours of the morning… and why it returns in full force the next day, when I’m forced to read over all of this “inspired” writing borne (mostly) of sleep deprivation.
These are the “easy” days, the days when my anxiety simply dismantles my ability to be productive. On other days, weekends bookended with deadlines or mid-week assignments that require hours of research, my anxiety turns far uglier. Destructive thought patterns surface, the urge to procrastinate intensifies (as does the subsequent self-loathing I feel after giving in to that urge), and I begin to second-guess every sentence.
What if my writing isn’t sharp enough, original enough, or noticed enough? What if my editors are plotting to fire me by the end of the day? What if someone thinks this headline is misleading or accuses me of plagiarizing another writer’s ideas and phrasing? What are they saying in the comments? What if an important detail or vital bit of subtext escaped my notice? What if I can’t bring in the kind of pageviews and clicks I need to keep my job? What if I’m not good enough — as a writer, as a person?
These aren’t occasional thoughts. These are incessant, obtrusive, crippling thoughts that run through my mind for the duration of each workday (and often for hours before and afterward, too). I feel them when I’m pitching. I feel them when I’m drafting. I feel them when I’m publishing. I feel them when I’m promoting. I feel them all the time.
There’s no tidy bow to put on this story. The truth is, I haven’t beaten my anxiety.
For that reason — and the very important disclaimer that I am neither a doctor nor a licensed mental health professional — it feels a bit disingenuous to offer any practical advice for dealing with anxious thought patterns. All I can say is that these tips have worked for me in the past.
Maybe they’ll work for you, too.
Don’t avoid the comments, but do be selective about when you choose to read them.
It’s the #1 rule of writing on the Internet: Don’t read the comments. But what if reading the comments is part of your job? What if you’re counting on that engagement to drive attention to your latest article or hoping to grow a dynamic and dedicated audience? You may not have the luxury of skipping over the discussion — or the spam, the trolls, and the criticism that sometimes comes with it.
If your brain works like mine does, it internalizes every negative comment. Every pithy remark, every minor correction, every harsh opinion gets filed away in the mental folder I’ve labeled “Imposter Syndrome: See, You’re Not Really Fooling Anyone After All.” Writing on the Internet all but demands a thick skin, but I’ve found it’s much easier to work on growing that skin after I’ve already turned in my work for the day.
So, while you may not be able to (or even want to) avoid the comment section entirely, you can still be strategic about when you allow yourself to dive into the discussion — whether that happens to be five minutes after you click ‘publish,’ in the hours after your workday ends, or even the next morning.
Pay attention to the way social media affects your anxiety levels.
Some people use social media platforms as a way to decompress, others use it to avoid doing work, and still others make it a core component of their business or online brand. It’s a commonly-held opinion that too much time spent on social media platforms can lead to laziness, depression, or worse, but what if posting and replying to that content is a non-negotiable part of your day job?
Several years ago, I started to take a step back from Twitter after I realized that it was having a negative impact on my ability to a) focus on doing my job and b) fight imposter syndrome. I wasn’t doing a good job of curating my feed, ignoring trolls, or engaging with other writers in my field — all three of which might have greatly benefitted both me and my work — and started avoiding social media updates as a result.
Not only did I cut down on my social media activity during the workday, but I decided to cut it out of my free time as well. While I definitely missed networking with my peers and interacting with the community I’d found on Twitter, choosing to take a step back helped me mitigate my anxiety. It may not have been a permanent solution, but it was both necessary and freeing at the time.
Counter destructive thought patterns with positive thought patterns.
It sounds corny, I know. I’m not going to pretend that the destructive thought patterns rattling around in my head are in any way diminished by the positive ones, but I do find some value in reminding myself that my anxious thoughts don’t always reflect the truth.
When my brain tries to self-destruct by telling me that I’m worthless, a terrible writer, hated by everyone who has ever come in contact with my work, lazy, entitled, and stupid, I try to give equal space to the thoughts that tell me I have worth, I’m a good, smart, hard-working writer, and (some) people enjoy what I have to say.
I may never be able to drown out the negative voices in my head, but I won’t allow them to be the only ones doing the talking.
Reach out to others for support when you start to feel anxious.
I can’t think of a more important point to make here. Battling anxiety is tough; battling it alone is far more difficult. If you have a trusted partner, spouse, family member, friend, online community, or hotline to reach out to, doing so can make those anxious moments feel just a little more manageable.
My fiancé will be the first to tell you that I’m terrible at asking for help. I’m stubborn to a fault and would prefer to struggle through a problem rather than admit I need some outside perspective and assistance. Even though I know that it’ll make me feel better to sit down with him and talk through my perceived inadequacy and stress, I often choose to wrestle with it alone, believing for whatever reason that my anxiety is a temporary feeling (despite years of evidence that prove otherwise) or that it isn’t really a problem worth troubling others about.
I’m not sharing this because I endorse avoidance as a coping mechanism. On the contrary, I’m sharing this because I know that it’s hard to ask for help. On a good day, I’m able to freely talk about the things that exacerbate my anxiety. On a bad day, it’s all I can do to text my fiancé or a close friend and let them know that I need support. And, like everything else on this list, confiding in someone doesn’t make my anxiety disappear — but it does remind me that I don’t have to shoulder it alone.
Take a 10-minute break… without procrastinating.
I may as well come out and say it: I’m a professional time-waster. I love to procrastinate. I mean, c’mon — there’s nothing like a good old-fashioned deadline to inspire a sudden passion for Buzzfeed quizzes and stress baking.
We all know that procrastinating is bad, and we all do it anyway. Unsurprisingly, my desire to procrastinate tends to rise in proportion to my anxiety levels, creating a hell of a cycle to be trapped in: the more anxious I feel, the more I procrastinate, the more anxious I feel, the more I procrastinate, and so on.
Instead of immediately jumping to Facebook (or Tumblr, or YouTube, or, uh, Furistas Cat Cafe) when I need a breather from whatever article or essay I’m working on, I’ve found it far more constructive to channel that nervous energy into writing a list of things I’d like to accomplish. Other times, I’ll pace around the house, play a couple of songs on the piano, or check something small and practical (the dishes; the laundry) off of my to-do list. It’s a fairly effective way to break the cycle of unproductive procrastination… then again, I’d be lying if I said I have this habit down pat.
Stick to a schedule.
According to my hyperactive, work-focused brain, writing something is the most important part of every day. Deep down, I know that’s not true, let alone healthy. My writing is deeply important to me, but it can’t take precedence over sleep, social interaction, and happiness (says the person writing this at 4:00 a.m.).
While setting aside time to write can be helpful, creating and sticking to a regular sleep schedule — and setting aside time to see friends and family, get out of the house or office, and indulge in non-writing hobbies — is even more crucial to maintaining your sanity and sense of creativity.
This isn’t a hall pass to miss deadlines and shirk real responsibilities, only to set modest expectations for your work and your workdays. Without a structured beginning and ending to most of my freelance gigs, I tend to let that work spill over into late evenings and early mornings without thinking about the mental and physical toll it’s taking on my health. The bottom line here: Take care of yourself first, worry about your writing later.
You are more important than the things you create.
Redefine your progress.
At some point, I started entertaining the hilarious (and so, so misguided) idea that I have near-superhuman powers of productivity. If I can just wake up early enough, remain focused enough, and tap into the right inspiration/muse/idea, why shouldn’t I be able to churn out multiple articles and blog posts every day?
In reality, that scenario almost never plays out as flawlessly as I imagine it will. Some days, I might be able to get through 3/4 of a rough draft. Other days, I can easily waste hour upon hour perfecting a single sentence. The longer something takes, the more I doubt my abilities, the more anxious I feel about my work, and the likelier I am to put off the next assignment.
Part of the problem, to be sure, is my proclivity for procrastination — but there’s no question that setting smaller, more attainable goals would both help me stay on track and lessen my anxiety about not meeting my own unrealistic expectations. “Progress” doesn’t have to look like completing a new blog post or drafting a new article every day (or every week, for that matter). It can be something as simple as writing an outline, getting a head start on research, arranging a brainstorming session with your go-to writing partner, or writing out a game plan for your next project so that you can take a much-needed day off.
Reflect on your goals and your success.
I love planning for the future. I have notebooks filled with book ideas, article pitches, and random projects that may never see the light of day. Fantasizing about all of the work I could be doing motivates me to complete the work I’m already getting paid to do. It gives me something exciting to look forward to in all of the hypothetical ‘spare time’ I believe I’ll get one day.
But when my anxiety flares up (which is to say, often), looking at future projects can be discouraging. I barely got through this week’s assignments, I think. How will I ever summon the creativity or the know-how to get through the next article, let alone another book/longform essay/[insert unattainable goal here]?
These are the moments when I end up staring at a framed newspaper article on my wall. It marks one of the last times I saw my name in print before that particular gig ended, and though it wasn’t the best or smartest or most widely-read piece I’d ever written, it was something I genuinely enjoyed putting together at the time. Often, it also serves as just the kind of tangible reminder I need when I start doubting whether or not I’ll be able to tackle a future challenge.
My anxious mind might think my best work is behind me, but I have plenty of time (and more than enough skill) to prove it wrong.
Ask someone you trust to provide an outside perspective.
There’s no question that it’s both important and comforting to have a support system in place, a group of people to whom you can reliably turn when intrusive thoughts start clouding your mind. When it comes to work-related anxiety, however, it’s also useful to solicit direct insight from someone who is familiar with your work (or, if your path is similar to mine, the trials and triumphs of a freelance writing career).
Admittedly, I’m not great about practicing this on a regular basis. I prefer to work and write alone, and reaching out to my colleagues for validation and advice often triggers intense feelings of vulnerability. After all, who’s to say that putting myself out there — even in a relatively safe environment — won’t result in a veritable flood of deserved criticism and overdue rejection? (Ah, there are the irrational fears I keep trying to suppress.)
Look, there’s an element of risk involved every time you ask someone to weigh in on something that’s important to you. That’s why the key word here is “trust.” It takes time, patience, and reciprocity to build up a network of trusted peers and mentors, but they’re some of the only people who will be able to give you honest, tactful advice when your anxiety starts to get the upper hand.
Acknowledge your anxiety… and write through it anyway.
If it sounds like a simple solution, it’s not.
Anxiety manifests in multiple ways. It looks like a fit of procrastination, a missed deadline, a fear of exposing yourself to feedback, chronic writer’s block, a panic attack. It’s not always possible to write through anxiety, either, and it bears repeating that your mental health should always trump the desire to be productive or accomplished or prolific.
Just as there’s no better way to overcome writer’s block than by putting words to page (or screen, as the case may be), there’s often no better remedy for writing-related anxiety than… writing. If chipping away at a work assignment or developing a new piece for publication feels daunting, write something for yourself.
Start small. Be kind as you go.
You’ve got this.