Tips for anxious writers: Series introduction
Over the years, as a writing coach trying to help others write more effectively, and as a writer seeking to improve my own ability, I have read a lot of good advice on writing. Too rarely, however, have I found advice that really helped me in my struggles with writing anxiety or that resonated with me as a coach seeking to help other anxious writers. Too often, the advice boils down to “be disciplined and write.” And that’s great advice, of course. At least in a general sense. But for people struggling with anxiety in their writing process, it’s not necessarily good advice. Depending on the degree of anxiety, “be disciplined,” can lead to vicious cycles in which each anxiety-drenched attempt to write only confirms the fear that writing is a painful ordeal. If you’re feeling enough anxiety, writing is a painful ordeal, as I will attest from personal experience.
Anxiety, of course, is a health issue that can be addressed by health professionals—a course of action that seems wise for anyone struggling with significant anxiety. But, as a writer who struggles with severe anxiety, and a writing coach who has helped many anxiety-blocked writers start writing productively, I want to offer some perspectives and advice about writing aimed at reducing writing anxiety through development of a healthy writing practice.
High-stakes writing and the vicious cycle of anxiety
For many scholars, with their entire career seemingly depending on each sentence they write, writing becomes torment. For many, a vicious cycle arises: anxiety reduces the ability to write, then reduced writing output leads to doubt about ability, which triggers additional anxiety about writing.
Anxiety -> Low output
Low output -> doubts about writing ability
doubts about writing ability -> anxiety
That cycle can be broken, and, in time, replaced with a virtuous cycle in which success in one writing session leads to increased confidence, which leads to increased success.
Anxiety, neurophysiology, and writing
Breaking the vicious cycle, depends, at least in part, in understanding how anxiety affects your ability to write and do good scholarship. Scholarship generally depends on the operations of the “higher brain”—the cortex—the parts of the brain wherein lie reasoning and imagination. Anxiety—an emotional response to potential threats—is characterized by activity, or even hyperactivity, of the brain’s amygdala, which tends to reduce the role of the areas of the higher brain. This physiological perspective makes clear that writing blocks due to anxiety are not just lack of discipline, and not just figments of the imagination. Anxiety literally inhibits the parts of the brain we need to write. If “be disciplined and write” triggers anxiety, then it’s probably not the right advice for you.
Regular experiences shape our neurophysiology. If you do the same thing every day, your body and brain adjust to that activity/experience. This can be good and it can be bad. Some practices help us grow, while others can be destructive.
A bad writing practice can reinforce and amplify anxieties. The vicious cycle I noted above (anxiety->low productivity->doubts about ability->more anxiety, etc.) is not the only vicious cycle of anxiety in writing. Of particular importance, perhaps, is the vicious cycle in which anxiety makes writing an unpleasant experience, which contributes to anxiety about future writing (“I suffered yesterday, so I’m sure I’m gonna suffer today”). “Be disciplined and write” can create and reinforce this destructive cycle: if you force yourself to write despite suffering severe anxiety, you will probably reinforce the perception that writing is painful.
Consider, by analogy, an athlete. Competitive athletes, of course, need discipline to push through pain, but an athlete also has to be able to recognize when pain is too much: more than one athlete has derailed a successful career by playing through pain. Like an athlete rehabilitating an injury, a scholar struggling with anxiety needs a rehabilitative practice that avoids exacerbating the anxiety, while also providing enough challenge to grow and heal.
Writing does not have to be an ordeal. Despite the unavoidable difficulties of writing, a healthy practice will avoid or interrupt destructive, vicious cycles, and become a positive experience that is sometimes even enjoyable or exhilarating.
Developing healthy writing practices
A good practice can help reduce writing anxiety significantly. But what does such a practice look like? Speaking loosely, healthy practices offer enough challenge that they demand growth, and enough ease that they build confidence.
Healthy practices should be difficult and even occasionally frustrating because without pushing your limits, it’s hard to grow. At other times, healthy practices can become monotonous: the musician plays scales; the athlete does drills; the scholar sifts through masses of data looking for patterns; and the writer revises, edits, and proofreads. Moments of success can seem rare and slow in coming, especially if the only moments that feel successful are when you get positive feedback from someone else. But as a healthy practice develops, it offers more good experiences.
Repeating an action builds the neurophysiology for that activity, and it also builds the neurophysiology of confidence about that action. Indeed, monotony is one face of unconscious confidence: you get bored when you know what’s going to happen, and you know that nothing bad is going to happen, or at least nothing seriously bad. As your practice develops, and your comfort with the practice of writing increases, many small anxieties can fall away, reducing the overall level of anxiety.
A healthy practice provides enough success and emotional reward to be worth the effort invested. Indeed, despite the difficulties, frustration, and monotony, writing can even be enjoyable. Indeed, according to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow, writing is the kind of activity that leads to the best experiences of peoples’ lives.
Writing as a practice
Writing is a skilled practice, an activity carried out on a regular basis, in which the practitioner develops a whole range of skills and abilities. For parallels, consider the musician, who develops physical skills (e.g., vocal control; guitar picking, etc.), intellectual skills (e.g., knowledge of repertoire, music theory, etc.), and even sensory acuity (the musical ear can be trained to more finely discriminate pitch). Or consider the athlete, who also develops a range of physical and intellectual skills (e.g., the ability to throw a ball accurately, competitive tactics, training strategies, etc.).
The scholarly writer, too, develops skills in practice. Most importantly, the scholar is developing a range of intellectual skills, most importantly the ability to craft a coherent theory, and also including knowledge of specialized vocabulary, other scholarship, research methods, the ability to plan a research project, and the ability to put ideas into words on the page. All of these improve if you have a healthy and consistent practice, and the more you do it, the more you develop reasonable confidence that you can do it again. Additionally, regular practice will help develop physical skill in typing and handwriting, which is not to be scorned for a person who wants to be able to write quickly.
Why these tips?
As a writing coach, I have worked with scholars whose anxiety was so great they couldn’t open their files, or even sit down to write; I have seen people start to hyperventilate as they described some aspect of their project. Personally, as a writer, I know well the experience of being flooded with self-doubt, having my heart pounding in my chest at the thought of some simple task, and feeling so overwhelmed that I become paralyzed. Many times, I have I sat stymied by anxiety when faced with some task that would be trivial for another.
As a writing coach, I’ve looked at a lot of advice for writers, and, so far, none of it was written for people like me who are really in the grip of anxiety. I’ve worked with too many people who demonstrated tremendous discipline in their lives as a whole, but got stuck with writing due to anxiety. Such people don’t need to be told to be disciplined. They need to be shown how to approach writing so that anxiety doesn’t work against them.
Learning to love writing
Writing can become a positive experience—difficult and frustrating, but positive. I don’t have any tips that make writing easy; but I do offer a realistic vision of how to build a healthy and positive writing practice.
Read the other articles in the series:
Tips for anxious writers: Series introduction
Tips for anxious writers: Gentle persistence
Tips for anxious writers: Writing is only a tool
Tips for anxious writers: Use exploratory writing
Tips for anxious writers: Practice and performance
Tips for anxious writers: Philosophy, a labor of love
Tips for anxious writers: How to get moving
Tips for anxious writers: Write for the right audience
Tips for anxious writers: Accept uncertainty; trust your practice
Tips for anxious writers: You are not an imposter
Dave Harris, Ph.D., editor, writing coach, and dissertation coach, helps writers develop effective writing practices, express their ideas clearly, and finish their projects. He is author of Getting the Best of Your Dissertation (Thought Clearing, 2015), Literature Review and Research Design: A Guide to Effective Research Practice (Routledge, 2020) and second author with Jean-Pierre Protzen of The Universe of Design: Horst Rittel’s Theories of Design and Planning (Routledge, 2010).Dave can be found on the web at www.thoughtclearing.com