On Writing and Anxiety

I've been keeping a secret, sorta. I mean, you never asked so I've never told, but I'm ready to come clean. There's a piece to my writing life that I've left out of my story of how I got started writing and my path to publication and why I write

Ready? Here it is.

*Deep breath.*

My name is Deirdre, and I have anxiety. 

I'm sharing this because May is National Mental Health Awareness Month and there's no reason for me to keep it quiet when I know other people may have a similar experience; together, we're stronger, right?

The reason I haven't shared this is because telling people gives me anxiety. In fact, that's a good starting place to discuss the subject because anxiety begets itself; it creates a loop. I live with anxiety, but talking about it, sharing it with others creates a new layer of anxiety and so it goes round and round.

The questions can start like this:

Will people think I'm crazy?

Will they read into what I've said?

Wait, what did I say?

Was it weird?

Will they make fun of me?

Think I'm unstable?

Am I unstable?

And so on and so on ad nauseum.

Anxiety comes in many forms, and I'm discussing generalized anxiety disorder as defined by the National Institute for Mental Health:

I'm by no means a professional, expert, or doctor, even though I occasionally pretend to be one in fiction. I also want to be clear that I'm talking about my experience and it's by no means prescriptive or blanket or even absolute. What I really want to talk about is how writing and storytelling has helped me manage my symptoms and how it's helped me heal.

Here's the thing: anxious thoughts are stories we tell ourselves.

In other words, the worries we have are stories, in our brains, the same as that idea for my next manuscript. Unless the fear is currently happening in the present, in which case it isn't really a fear, but reality and demands an entirely different scenario for how to handle it, anxiety and worry thoughts aren't real. With the aid of our brilliant imaginations, we make them up. 

This is a bit of a simplification because anxiety can often arise from situations we previously found ourselves in (however, that verges more toward PTSD, another topic entirely). 

Standard worries tend to be sticky and we may have the same ones repeatedly or fear the recurrence of a past experience. When seen in the light of day it may not be overly anxiety-inducing, but when pulled into the glue of anxiety, we fear, we're certain that it'll happen all over again. Our brains can be tricksy like that. But that's not the present, it's expectation and what ifs and a trick of the mind. 

'Cos if it ain't happenin', it ain't happenin'.

This is to say that being mindful of our present situation can work wonders. Tuning into the texture of the couch, the tickle of my hair against my cheek, the birds chirping outside, the relative stability surrounding me and dropping into it (and away from the scenarios playing on repeat in my mind) is one way to help manage the worry. But it's a practice and usually it takes me a few tries to really get it when I'm in an anxiety lather. However, being present to what's going on around me has helped me tremendously. And therapy and a host of other things...

And so has writing. Creating fictional worlds where characters play out situations has given me the opportunity to jump the groove of well-worn worries and fear based thinking.

Here's how I do this:

1. Acknowledge the worry I'm having is just my mind tricking me out of the present. (What a jerk! Just kidding, my amygdala and hippocampus don't always play nice, but we're working it out, learning how to share—it's todldler business.)

2. Root myself in the present. This might simply be a matter of looking at my surroundings both outwardly and inwardly. 

Feet on the floor: Plush carpet? Smooth tile? Cork? Trampoline? 

Then taking a deep breath, and connecting with a person in my proximity. All these things centralize myself to where I am.

3. Take a deep breath. And another and another. I'm a shallow-breather-breath-holder. Often this is the source of the problem because the message I'm sending my nervous system is danger, danger, when really it's girl, breathe!

4.  As a writer, I often have project ideas floating around in my head, so I latch onto one and ask, what would so and so do right now or if taking them into my world doesn't fit, I work them through a scene in theirs. Then this takes me onto the page, and I'll think of lines of dialog or the color of a dress I was stuck on.

See, it's all about managing my imagination. The thing is, I don't always get to choose my initial thoughts, but once I'm aware of them, I can direct them. 

I used to see anxiety as a huge burden, as something wrong with me (like I was saying above about how anxiety begets itself, having anxiety about anxiety! Whoa.) But now I try to look at it as an opportunity. 

What can I learn about myself in this situation right now? 

What do I need? 

What am I lacking? 

How can I use this perceived shortcoming as fuel? 

I can take care of myself. I can write. I can be open about it and connect with others.

Another thing I learned is that oftentimes anxiety triggers are a matter of stepping on the edge of comfort zones. So often with those of us who are especially creative and imaginative stepping into the space of putting ourselves out there, sharing the things we have to give, (for example our stories,) is scary times. It's as though our minds want to protect us from fear of failure, embarrassment, typos! by wrapping us up in another narrative about how we're not safe, adding another layer about how people won't like us, and another sheet about something else entirely and then taping it up tight with a little card on top that says what we're doing is pointless, stupid, redundant, etc. It hides the truth of what we're really here to put forth.

So here are some new questions I ask myself:

What is the craziest, most unique idea I can come up with that works in fiction?

How can I paint sentences that give readers a clear and beautiful and compelling picture of the story?

What can I draw from in real life to give the story texture and density?

Am I weird? I still sometimes ask myself that one, but I'm ok with either answer. I'm totally weird. It's kinda cool actually.

Will they make fun of me? Well, they might. There might be terrible reviews, people who misunderstand my intent, some who just don't connect with the story, and others who just aren't on the level, y'know? My work isn't for them and that's ok too.

The last one, am I unstable? No. I am a person with anxiety who does better some days than others managing it. And I'm not alone. There are many writers, creatives, and artists who deal with the same thing, which means if you're reading this and you have anxiety, whether or not you write or draw or whatever, you are not alone. That's the shitty thing about anxiety, it tends to alienate us, when in reality, it can truly bring us together because we're not so different.

The thing I know through all of this, days spent trapped in a loop of worry, nights lying awake with the same thoughts on repeat, is not to be afraid of my mind or the world. Because our biggest gifts are just beneath bows and wrapping that worries work to hide.

For those of us with anxiety, one of the surest ways I know to access those gifts is to stay present. (See what I did there? Gifts-presence, huh? Huh?) And instead of allowing the stories we imagine to interfere with our lives and well being, use it to create words on paper.

If you're experiencing anxiety please, please get help, don't keep it a secret, reach out—as difficult as it can be. Here's a starting point

Here are some references for writing and anxiety specifically. 

And here's another stellar post on writing like a motherf*cker. This is a MUST read for writers. 

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