What It’s Like to Be a Writer with Anxiety

It’s one of those normal-not-so-normal days for me. I slept badly, woke up feeling frantic, and drove to work obsessing about everything and nothing. During the course of the morning I alternated between short manic bursts of energy and then feeling completely raw and like I was walking around in the world with no skin on. I know the energy bursts will taper off until I’m left with only the raw feeling, and then I’ll need to withdraw totally. How I’ll feel tomorrow is a crap shoot. I might be okay, or I might feel down and low-key depressed for most of the day.

However I feel though, I know I’ll make it through. None of this is new for me. In fact, it’s so familiar that I don’t even really stress about it anymore, which might sound odd but it’s true.

It’s just my anxiety. And it’s been my pretty much constant companion for my entire life.

If someone asked me what triggered my anxiety this time, I could give them a list of possible reasons. The holidays are approaching, which makes me feel pressured and overwhelmed. I’ve been experiencing a bit of conflict in my interpersonal relationships, which makes me feel off-kilter and worried until I can get back to harmony with certain people. I’ve also been downloading a new idea for a novel into my brain, which definitely throws me for a loop every time it happens. I’m hearing voices and seeing images of the main character and his story arc as I go about my daily business and I can’t shut it off.

So, a lot is happening. And nothing is happening. Life is happening. I’m just anxious about it.

As I’ve gotten older and more comfortable with myself, I have noticed that whenever I experience a spike in creativity, I also experience a spike in anxiety. I’m almost sure that the new novel that is being birthed in my brain at the moment is responsible for most of my anxiety this time around. I’m in a state of receiving, you see, and I’m not really sure what it is I’m going to receive. I’m trying to remain totally open to the experience, ready to hold space for the characters and the story, no matter what they bring to me. But that’s scary all in itself. I have a million questions that can’t be answered at this time. Like, what if this idea for my new novel doesn’t work? What if only fragments come through and I’m not a good enough writer to piece the whole thing together into something coherent and readable? Also, the main character feels questionable. And violent. What if he’s too much for me to take on?

At this point in my life as a writer, I know that huge uncertainty is just part of what you sign up for when you’re going through a creative surge. For high levels of creativity to come in and do their thing, the environment must also possess a certain level of instability. Creativity can’t get down and boogie when the structure trying to hold it is too rigid. Creativity wants to make its own shape. Preconceived notions about what that should look like be damned.

So, yeah. Instability. It’s necessary. But it triggers my anxiety big time.

The other piece of the anxiety puzzle, for me, is the fact that I’m so sensitive. Like, to everything. Maybe normal people get a strong case of nerves when they hit the “publish” button on Amazon, but I feel dizzy and nauseous for days afterward. And I’ve never done well with criticism of my work. When I write something that’s important to me, it feels like I just coughed up my still-beating big bloody heart all over the page. When someone criticizes those creative efforts, it feels like they kicked me square in the chest and I can’t even breathe.

Of course, too, whenever I put my work out into the world, my insane overthinking brain starts up again with the questions. Who am I to say these things and voice these opinions? What if I’m wrong? What if, really, I just wrote a bunch of bullshit and slapped a cover on it and called it a book? What if I’m a pretentious idiot? Or worse, what if I’m just completely mediocre? What if the world would actually be better if I stopped writing?

You might say that every person has fears and doubts like these, that it’s all part of being human. But for a writer like me, when I’m in the grip of anxiety, these thoughts and questions play on a never-ending loop and the weight of them feels physical. It freezes me in my tracks as I’m walking across a room. It drags me down and gives me the strange feeling of vertigo at times, so that I have to sit down, wherever I am. Then I question myself from a different angle. Am I being melodramatic? Are these feelings even real or am I making them up? How can anyone feel so strongly and be so sensitive about their art that it makes them feel physically ill? Aren’t I being overindulgent, yet again?

I don’t have a “solution” for this experience, although I have learned strategies and coping mechanisms over the years. Breathing exercises, shifting perspective, reframing my thoughts. All of that works, to a certain extent. But the reality is that I am what I am. I’m a highly creative, extremely sensitive, emotional tornado who is also an intuitive artist, ready and willing to ride the white rapids of the creative experience.

I’m done fighting who I am, but that doesn’t mean the bouts of anxiety get any easier.

Lauren Sapala is the author of  Firefly Magic: Heart Powered Marketing for Highly Sensitive Writers, a guide to help any HSP, INFJ, INFP, or introvert writer move past resistance to selling and marketing their work. She is also the author of  The INFJ Writer, a writing guide made specifically for sensitive intuitive writers.

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