Anxiety and writing

I am a writer, and I am anxious.


Now, to say it like that, ‘anxious’ makes it sound like a temporary state, but that’s not so. I’m anxious, and I have been, on and off, since I was a child. I decided to write this post because I know there are plenty of others out there who suffer from acute anxiety, and also that it is something that is hard for them, and others, to talk about.


It has been heart-warming to see depression go from taboo topic to much more widely accepted and discussed. Although there is of course a long way to go, I think people are just now starting to realise that you can’t just tell your depressed friend to ‘cheer up’, and when they don’t, get snarky with them and tell them they are just not trying. Matt Haig has written eloquently, and with openness on his depression, so it’s to him I feel indebted when I write this.


Firstly, I’d like to talk about what anxiety is,  how it feels to be anxious from day to day, and how a panic attack feels, and what you can do as a stranger or a friend to help. Then about anxiety and how it affects my writing life. I’d really like to hear from some fellow sufferers too, so if you feel like commenting at the end, I’d appreciate that.


What is Anxiety?


According to the NHS,

Anxiety is a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe.

GAD (generalised anxiety disorder)  is a long-term condition which causes you to feel anxious about a wide range of situations and issues, rather than one specific event. 1 in 20 people in the UK suffer from GAD.

People with GAD feel anxious most days and often struggle to remember the last time they felt relaxed. GAD can cause both psychological (mental) and physical symptoms.

GAD can cause a change in your behaviour and the way you think and feel about things. Psychological symptoms of GAD include:

  • restlessness
  • a sense of dread
  • feeling constantly “on edge”
  • difficulty concentrating
  • irritability
  • impatience
  • being easily distracted

the physical symptoms of GAD can include:

  • dizziness

  • drowsiness and tiredness

  • pins and needles

  • irregular heartbeat (palpitations)

  • muscle aches and tension

  • dry mouth

  • excessive sweating

  • shortness of breath

  • stomach ache

  • nausea

  • diarrhoea

  • headache

  • excessive thirst

  • frequent urinating

  • painful or missed periods

  • difficulty falling or staying asleep (insomnia)


Sources: [x] and [x]


Anxiety and panic attacks


If you’ve ever found yourself in a stressful situation, or had a bad shock, you will are likely to have felt anxious. There is that ‘fight or flight’ mechanism, a need to get out, to get away, or sometimes to lash out. But for someone with anxiety, this feeling occurs far more frequently, and at inappropriate times. You can be quietly riding on public transport and be suddenly hit by a wave of unease. You can be in the supermarket, in a pub with you friends, at a concert. Anxiety can be rooted in social discomfort, or can be a response to certain triggers. If there is no escaping the trigger, no release of pressure through calming methods, the feelings can ramp up to extremely high levels, so that the sufferer has a panic attack and may even pass out.  Meanwhile those around them remain confused, maybe even repelled, by the dramatic ‘hysterical’ response they are witnessing.


I should point out that I’ve never been diagnosed with GAD. I have however had almost all of the symptoms listed, and over long periods of time. When I was working on my PhD, I became so anxious that rather than breathing normally, I began hyperventilating all the time. I went to the doctor and was given some breathing techniques and told to exercise regularly, two ways of working on the stress I was feeling with such an overwhelming workload. I successfully submitted the PhD and passed my viva, though after that it took months for the anxiety to subside to normal levels. If you think you are struggling to cope, go and see your doctor. If they aren’t helpful, don’t be afraid to ask them more than once for instruction and relief. They are there to help you.


What can I do?


If you are a stranger who comes across someone who is suffering a panic attack, there are some things you can do to help them.  The first thing is not to make the person feel bad while they are suffering. Don’t stand and gape. If you hear someone breathing abnormally, you should ask yourself whether they might need medical assistance (obviously, they might not be having a panic attack, but perhaps a stroke or heart attack). Ask them to describe their symptoms. Work with those around you to help the person – and find a doctor or call an ambulance if things are not immediately clear.


If they are having a panic attack, talk to them. Of course you are under no obligation to do this, and they might not even respond to your questions, but it can have a calming effect. Ask them easy questions, ask them about the weather, or something related to where they are – nothing too personal. The aim is to put them at ease, not interrogate them. There is something helpful in repetition, so saying, you are okay over and over can help. Best not to touch the person, even if you just want to pat them on the back. You don’t know why they are panicking – it could be because of invasion of personal space. If things get to the point where they pass out, find someone who knows first aid. Be on hand to provide water for when they come round – they will likely be very thirsty.


Obviously, strangers will have limited contact with someone who displaying the regular degree of anxiety GAD sufferers have. If you do interact with someone who appears a little anxious, you can help them by refraining from commenting on it – drawing attention to it or making jokes helps no one – and be courteous in your dealings with them.


If you are a friend, relative or partner of a person having a panic attack – proceed in the same way as a stranger would, only, if you are tempted to comment on what is happening in a negative way, either by expressing your embarrassment, disgust, or disbelief at your friend’s symptoms – DON’T. They DO NOT need to hear ‘what are you doing?’ ‘stop that’, ‘get a hold of yourself’. While being snapped at might silence the sufferer, it will make them feel terrible. No one having a panic attack wants to cause a fuss in public, but they aren’t doing it because of you. If you can, help them out of any situation that seems to be exacerbating the attack. And remember, it is an attack, not an outburst.


If you know a person who is anxious all the time, the same advice applies – do no harm. Do not goad a person with anxiety. If you wouldn’t say to a depressed person ‘I don’t think you’re even trying!’, why would you say ‘you always overreact!’ to a person who has GAD? Both of these things are toxic and unkind. It can be hard to be with an anxious person, because they move at a faster speed, often churning ideas over and over in their heads. They seem to make no sense to you because you can’t understand why they would be so stressed by something that seems so minor, or devote so much energy to their worries. But if you remember they are struggling with a wonky flight-or-fight mechanism, or that they might have problems in their life that you do not know about, you can remind yourself to be kind. To make them tea, to talk things out if they want to. To go on a walk with them outside if they need the fresh air. If you are in a position to help them break the cycle of anxious thoughts, do.


If you suffer from anxiety yourself, there are lots of resources online – breathing exercises, visualisations and suggestions for work-outs. One thing that helps me is writing – quite odd, as you’ll see below. Another is working on tasks with small, defined steps, such as cooking. Chopping vegetables, reading instructions, putting things together, and producing something at the end that serves a purpose. You might also try visualising a system from the smallest part to the largest – a landscape, beginning with the soil, to the roots of small plants, to fields, to mountains and the weather overhead. You could also think of parts of a car, or furniture in a room. Again, talk to your doctor. Though it’s likely you will have to periodically live with anxiety, you do not have to fumble alone in search of tools to help.


Writing and anxiety


As I said above, writing is one of the things I do which helps break me out of my anxiety. The small, diligent act of building a sentence from nothing, up to a paragraph, into a chapter or whole piece is both challenging and satisfying. It’s hard to find lists online with writers who suffered anxiety – because often, these labels are applied in retrospect to people now dead, and I scrunch my eyes at diagnosis without patients present. But you can bet there have been writers who wrote through their anxiety.


A strange part of writing as an anxious person is that writing, itself, can often be a source of great unease and fear. The idea of writing for an audience. Anxiety caused by thinking of how your work with be received. Anxiety as response to callous criticism (or even constructive criticism of the helpful sort), or indifference. Fear over inadequacies. Fear over having to read aloud their work. All art requires that the artist is vulnerable, both in being open to interpreting the world, and in standing out there alone to make it. In letting the work be in the world. For the anxious, it might fill them with a deep sense of doom or futility. But they do it anyway. They persist. Because art, writing, is a form of communication, and they want to speak in a way that they otherwise could not. Think about the writer, squirrelled away in their room, writing, sick with self-doubt and perhaps shaking with anxiety-produced adrenalin. But hypersensitive too, aware of the many things they have said and done wrong, that others have said, and capable of the repetitious, testing thoughts that are required to build a narrative, break it down and rebuild it again in better ways. The writing is a channel for the surge of corrosive energy, a conduit that allows more to flow, for a time, but to a purpose, unlike that generalised anxiety that clings to the skin of the world otherwise. This is one reason why I write. Why, in fact, anxiety enables me to write.


As a reader, I favour books which deviate from a ‘realist’ mode. Realism – a method of describing that seeks to emulate ‘real life’ experience, being mostly linear (with some flashbacks), full of smooth sentences, casts of clearly described characters. Yes, sometimes I enjoy reading Tolstoy, but the notion of realism requires that there is a single idea of the ‘real’ that we generally agree on. For people with anxiety, what is real is not necessarily enacted in the same way as for others. Fragmented sentences, fragmented thoughts. Repetition of the kind found as scaffolding in fairytales. non-linear time, and incidents that are returned to, dismantled, seen from other perspectives. An allowance of uncertainty, doubt, contradiction. Perhaps, maybe, I’m not sure. Modernist interpretations of stream-of-consciousness might not be an exact match for the world inside the head, but they often move forwards, backwards, in a way that acknowledges the threads and knots of thought.


*deep breath*


I hope some of this has proved useful to others. The worst thing (which of course I have been thinking about) is if this just seemed to be about myself. Let me know what you do with anxiety, yours, or the anxiety of people close to you. I want to hear this phenomenon discussed freely, the topic moving with depression towards a public acceptance. If depression is a black dog, anxiety is a smaller animal, but no less hounding. A little weasel with sharp, nipping teeth. How do you see the world through your fears? Do you know how brave you are? How do you help those around you find their way to equilibrium? Please leave comments below.




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23 responses to “Anxiety and writing

  1. “The worst thing (which of course I have been thinking about) is if this just seemed to be about myself.” There it is. That is the worst part, isn’t it? But it’s also the best part. I think maybe the most personal parts are the parts that resonate most for others, or at least I tell myself this in order to unfreeze myself and move forward. Loved this, Helen.

    • Thank you for this, and for the openness and warmth you display on your own blog. The point is finding where the personal and the universal are both one and not-one, right?

  2. Pingback: Writing About Anxiety | Time's Flow Stemmed

  3. Superb post, Helen. My reply got out of control so I made it a post here:

    I hadn’t even thought to what degree anxiety might have shaped my reading, particularly my preference for modernist writers, so I’ll contemplate that a lot more.


    • Thank you for providing your perspective on things. I go back and forth about the issue of labelling – on the one hand it can be demonising, on the other it is a step towards ‘saying’ and therefore normalising things. But if so many people have anxiety, you might be right – what do we call this persistent behaviour that we have in common ? No answers here, lots to wonder.

  4. Hi Helen,
    thank you so very much for this post, and NO; it doesn’t seem self-obsessed – I recognize myself in this, and I’m sure a lot of people do! I would say I have had a GAD, my therapist would say I’m too well functioning, but there are times in my life that I can’t remember what it’s like not to worry.
    I manage my anxiety to a large degree through writing. At times it has been the only zone where I forget my worries for a little while. The only working medication.

  5. Hi Helen, thanks for writing this. I’ve only recently started having to deal with panic attacks (in the last year or two), but I could never write through them just because of how severe they can get. The first time, I shot out of bed and thought I was having a heart attack. I was shaking uncontrollably and felt like I was going to die. But it was a wake-up call for me: I needed to get psychiatric help. I’ve long since just tried to deal with depression on my own, quietly. I often felt like I was just burden to my loved ones. I started going to a psychologist, but just going to therapy wasn’t enough. Unfortunately, I’ve had to go on medication just to help me breathe and not feel like I’m jumping out of my skin all the time. Exercise seems to help a bit too. Strangely, it seems like moving around helps me settle.

    • Oh, trying to write while in the midst of a panic attack would be like trying to write while having an asthma attack – I mean, technically you could do it, but you have more important things to be dealing with at that moment. I didn’t mean to suggest writing was possible then. Only during times when the anxiety is at a level that is hard but bearable.

      I found this interesting article on the Guardian – particularly the first half resonates with me: perhaps there will be something there for you too. It’s a hard battle, Exercise and finding some way to break the cycle of thoughts. I know you will find a handle on it, with help and through your own strength.

  6. I too see myself in this and know that an age old anxiety like micochrindia in my very cells is the spur. Thankfully there is no cure to that rhythm.

    • Hi Helen,
      Thanks to Anthony for pointing me to your post and and your blog generally. Anxiety definitely shapes my approach to reading and writing too — I was fascinated by your comments on this. Best wishes from a place you once spent a ‘wee bit’ of your life, as I’ve just read on your blog.


    • I am glad that for you anxiety is a tamed thing, it’s a good story to see.

  7. plethiproject

    Thanks for being courageous and starting this process of sharing!

    I would guess I’ve experienced an uncomfortable level of anxiety for fifty years or so. Less so recently.

    One of the problems of the signifier “anxious” is that it labels an individual as being faulty, having deficits, when probably anxiety lives at an interface where the individual meets the social world. What we do is make the “individual” problematic rather look at the impact of whole systems. Now we talk about a burgeoning series of medicalised syndromes to be treated rather than taking the view that writers like Durkheim would have; our sense of alienation and anomie relates to our relative lack of value in a world obsessed with money/profit/appropriation. We also, as Ulrich Beck said a long time ago, live in a society that has made Risk a religion. We now know very clearly what we should be anxious about!!

    What works for me;
    – Being in motion, especially cycling brings a particular sense of joy. (Do things that make you happy)
    – If thoughts circle around and are becoming ruminations ‘thought stop’ by saying “these thoughts are no use to me” I then try to capture and sustain an image of a butterfly or candle in my imagination. (Mindfulness/ Meditation)
    – Replacing a critical ‘internal narrative’ with one that is compassionate. In terms of transactional analysis replacing a ‘critical parent’ with a ‘nurturing’ one. (Compassionate Mentoring).
    – Look for strengths not deficits.
    – Being Heideggerian! Not objectifying the world but seeing myself as integrated within it.

  8. “For people with anxiety, what is real is not necessarily enacted in the same way as for others. Fragmented sentences, fragmented thoughts. Repetition of the kind found as scaffolding in fairytales. non-linear time, and incidents that are returned to, dismantled, seen from other perspectives. An allowance of uncertainty, doubt, contradiction. Perhaps, maybe, I’m not sure.”

    Based on that, I am clearly an anxious writer. That describes my prose style succinctly. And if constant self doubt and chronic depression count as well, the diagnosis is complete. I run (a lot) and I relish when I write a sentence or image exactly right, but that relief is fleeting. Still, maybe I write from my anxiety, and if I were a happy, settled person, I would have nothing to say.

    Thanks for this post. It was brave and enlightening, and in increases the fellowship among us all.

  9. What courage in sharing and what encouragement to others to share. Yours is a brave and honest heart.

  10. I’m very glad you’ve written this, Helen, and it is something I think about a lot. When I was completing my MFA, I began to suffer from stupidly high blood pressure. (I’m a small person, and I’m very active so it was all very odd – it was inexplicable to me at the time and rather scary.) I now know that I was in a state of almost near panic every day. There were other factors involved but mostly it was triggered by my own self-doubt as a writer and what kind of professional career I had decided to work toward. “Fraught” is the word that most often comes to mind when I think about those years of my life. Interestingly enough, the greatest help for me has come about by living quietly. I require a lot of hours on my own – and obviously reading and/or writing are my favorite activities. I still get anxious, but I’m very fortunate that a number of coincidental circumstances (and some of my own choices) have meant that I live in a quiet place and live a quiet life and that I’m able to work from home with my translations and editing. I sometimes bemoan the fact that I’m not able to be more involved in the indie writing community in the US, but in truth, the distance is very healthy for me.

    And I love the discussion that has come up now in terms of how this experience has shaped my reading (and my writing). For reading, it is clear that I am drawn to writers with similar sensibilities/sensitivities. At the same time, I also find that I can be rather severe on writers who seem to wallow in a kind of neurosis about the same issues. This is kind of complicated for me. Some of my severity is unfair, I know this. But there it is.

    Thank you for writing this, Helen. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

  11. Pingback: The Long Commute | plethiproject

  12. Lizzie Bannister


    Nice to know I am not alone – I write letters out of anxiety, which causes more anxiety and more letters – but they are a great way to communicate.


    • adhy

      Can you give me the sources related to Writing anxiety? especially the causes and types of writing anxiety. I am going to do a kind of research at my school

      • Hi there, this isn’t an authoritative piece, so sources are mostly my own personal experience, coupled with a few links above (see blue x), sorry I can’t be more helpful!

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