The problem of anxiety in writing
Writers proudly wear the label “anxious,” like a badge certifying authenticity. If you have not felt blocked with anxiety at some point, your membership in the authors’ club is in question. More than other professions, writers define their occupation as the productive time in between moments of anxiety.
The true story of Ralph Ellison’s anxiety trumps all blockages that I have read. In 1950, he burst onto the Civil Rights scene with his powerful novel, Invisible Man. He felt the flow as he wrote this book, but he left the zone immediately after it hit bookshelves. According to The New York Times the block overcame him entirely, and he was unable to complete his follow-up novel, though he was still trying at his death in 1994. He felt the pressure of his own success combined with the hopes of the entire Civil Rights movement, and the anxiety blocked him for 40 years.
In addition to the anxiety many people experience daily, writers face a task that rarely leaves them settled: the blank page. However, it too can be framed as an anxiety problem. Anxiety is a psychological symptom that causes pain. Psychological pain can take various forms, but unhealthy stress can lead to other problems and pain. Simple psychological interventions focused on anxiety can help.
Anxiety is not even all bad, according to the Mayo Clinic:
Anxiety happens as a normal part of life. It can even be useful when it alerts you to danger. But for some people, anxiety persistently interferes with daily activities such as work, school or sleep. This type of anxiety can disrupt relationships and enjoyment of life, and over time it can lead to health concerns and other problems.
When the anxiety lasts for too long and interferes with daily life, it needs to be addressed before more serious health issues develop. The odd truth is that many writers’ most productive time is fraught with anxiety as well. So, they feel anxiety when not writing and when in the flow. Flow is the opposite of block. An author is in the flow when he or she is connected to the words, and the language comes with ease. Anxiety can produce both results, block or flow.
The pain and suffering of anxiety
Ellison’s history is one of a man overcome with life-long anxiety, which turned to unhealthy stress. Although some people think of writer’s block as synonymous with laziness or procrastination, Ellison’s type of anxiety is a serious condition. New therapies and medicines exist today than can help people who are crippled like Ellison. He experienced more than just pain, which is temporary. Ellison suffered long-term unhealthy stress.
A barrage of remedies for anxiety exist and have mixed results. One relatively new therapy that holds promise is called ACT, especially useful for anxiety and writer’s block. Psychology Today defines the acronym:
Accept your reactions and be present.
Choose a valued direction.
ACT therapy focuses on mindfulness as a healthy intervention that cuts off the suffering and encourages choosing to accept and distance the pain to avoid its long-term effects. In many cases, doctors use ACT therapy along with advanced medications that are now on the market.
The goal of ACT is not to end the pain completely, although that might happen. The therapy helps an individual change how he or she perceives and experiences the pain of anxiety, keeping it short-term, avoiding suffering.
Accepting your feelings
Rather than dismissing or covering up negative feelings, you force your mind to accept them. Denying that you feel anxiety will only create additional problems. Acknowledge that you feel it, and in the case of writer’s block, recognize where your feelings originate. You own those feelings, but they do not own you.
The reason the feelings do not own you is that you choose how much power to give them. Mindfulness refers to being consciously aware of your thoughts and feelings in the moment. Distancing yourself from them empowers you to distance yourself from the psychological pain and control it.
Distancing yourself means standing back and objectively viewing your thoughts and feelings. This is the difference between actually playing a football game, with the pain of crunching pads, helmets, and flesh, and watching the game from a distance. From a distance, you can see the pain down there, but you separate it from your present experience. It does not take over your present moment, and therefore cannot cause long-term suffering. The game can continue. You just aren’t present in the plays.
You choose something to value to give meaning to your experience and life, providing reason to distance the pain and endure. In the case of writing, you choose to value productivity in writing and establish this as your goal. You acknowledge that this initiates anxiety, but the anxiety does not overcome you. You view the pain from a distance, and it doesn’t matter if it stops because it doesn’t overpower you in the present moment.
The action you take is to force the feelings of anxiety into the distance and write. The anxiety is still present, but it’s as if the pain is separate from you. You value writing, and you act on that value by sitting down and getting busy. Acknowledge that the pain is ongoing, but just write, and the anxiety will not interfere.
Mindfulness of this sort obviously takes practice, but it can be done in many different ways, and it is easy to learn. Your mindfulness practice can be simple meditations, where you close your eyes, focus your mind on the present, and distance yourself from your thoughts and feelings. You can find all sorts of easy meditation exercises on the internet.
Ralph Ellison surely would have benefited from today’s psychological knowledge, but of course, therapy and medicine don’t always work. ACT therapy works frequently enough that it is well worth trying with writer’s block or other anxieties.
Hayes, S.C, & S. Smith. (2005). Get out of your mind and into your life: The new acceptance and commitment therapy. Oakland: New Harbinger.