While writing, you may have had questions like this race through your head:
What if nobody likes it?
What if I can’t get published?
How can I write something I’ve never written before?
If you have, you’re not alone. All creatives experience creative anxiety. And that’s exactly what causes these thoughts!
Creative anxiety is a barrier that keeps us from writing, but it doesn’t have to be. In today’s episode, host Rhonda Douglas walks us through the process of recognizing and managing our creative anxiety so we can finally finish.
Listen to learn:
Of course, the techniques alone aren’t enough—we also have to want to make the change.
[03:34] Our brain has gone off, and is living in the future. We're worried about some future thing.
[05:25] Our brain loves certainty. Part of how it has evolved to keep us safe over time, is that it looks for safety in certainty.
[11:07] You don't do this once and know that now your creative anxiety is sorted forevermore. These are tools that you develop and you work with.
[13:41] Fabulous. That's all you have to do. Write that on a sticky note. “Right now, I'm writing the scene that is about my two characters kissing for the first time.”
[17:40] In this case, it's a non-action, it's an avoidant action, avoidant behaviour. And based on that avoidant behaviour, we end up with a result in the world, which is the scene doesn't get written.
[19:22] You have to gentle your way into it. You have to find a shift in thought that is subtle, that your brain will take.
[23:46] Of course, you are right to be thinking about the structure of your book. That is a legitimate craft concern.
[27:54] We see ourselves as people who want to learn and grow and write new work, and get better as writers, and create something out of nothing, which is amazing, which is daunting, and fosters creative anxiety in us.
Well, hey there, writer. Welcome to the Resilient Writers Radio Show. I'm your host, Rhonda Douglas, and this is the podcast for writers who want to create and sustain a writing life they love. Because let's face it, the writing life has its ups and downs, and we wanna not just write, but also to be able to enjoy the process so that we'll spend more time with our butt in chair getting those words on the page. This podcast is for writers who love books and everything that goes into the making of them. For writers who wanna learn and grow in their craft and improve their writing skills. Writers who want to finish their books and get them out into the world so their ideal readers can enjoy them. Writers who wanna spend more time in that flow. State writers who want to connect with other writers to celebrate and be in community in this crazy roller coaster ride we call the Riding Life. We are resilient writers. We're writing for the rest of our lives, and we're having a good time doing it. So welcome rider. I'm so glad you're here. Let's jump right into today's show.
Well, hello everyone. Welcome to the Resilient Writers Radio Show for today. Today is a solo episode just with me, and we are gonna talk about how to overcome creative anxiety. So the American Psychiatric Association defines anxiety as anticipation of a future concern, and they say it's often associated with muscle tension and avoidance behaviour. Okay, so let's just think about that for a second. Avoidance of a future concern associated with muscle tension and avoidance behaviour. Does that ring true for you at all? Have you ever avoided a writing session? Most of us have at some point in time, right? It can be fairly typical behaviour. I would say it's more evident, more common at certain phases of the writing process. But many of us have experienced a form of anxiety. So sometimes people talk about writer's block, or they talk about writer's resistance.
I like to think of it all as a form of creative anxiety, and I believe that all writers have some form of creative anxiety at different points in their writing process, different points in their writing lives. So if you experience creative anxiety, welcome to the writing life. This is just normal. Most writers experience this in some way, shape or form to some degree or another. And you are probably not alone. You're most likely not alone.
All the talk that we do as writers when we're talking about writer's block and, you know, being worried about not knowing what to write next or, you know, stopping because we're not sure the story's working. All of that is creative anxiety. It's a form of creative anxiety. I wanna go back to that, that definition though, right? Anticipation of a future concern. So we can also see that anytime we're feeling anxious, we know we're not in the present, we're not grounded in the present.
Our brain has gone off and is living in the future. We're worried about some future thing. We're worried about the book coming out, or the story or essay or poem coming out and us feeling exposed. We're worried about the book not working. The book we haven't finished yet, right? So we're in the future. We we're worried The book doesn't work. The book we haven't written yet because we're worried it doesn't work. <Laugh>, right? That's what we do.
So all anxiety is anticipation of a future concern. We cannot know the future. And so one of the ways we deal with creative anxiety is by being fully in the present. The other thing about anxiety is that it is a fear-based behaviour. So or fear-based thinking. So when we anticipate a future concern, our future concern is not typically isn't. What if my book is wildly successful and ends up on a New York Times bestseller list?
I mean, we, that might give some of us concern. Some people are anxious about, you know, runaway success, but for many of us, that would be a dream. And so often what we're worried about, it's some form of fear-based thought, okay? And fear is an emotional response to a perceived threat. Whether the threat is real or not. Our bodies and our brains believe it to be real. And so we end up in this fight, flight, or freeze kind of reaction. And what goes on is that our amygdala just kind of picks up a signal super quick. Like, like, we don't even know it's happening, but it picks up a signal based on a thought we've had that is a fearful thought about the future, something that could happen if we finish this piece of work and get it out into the world. And we are fearful about that.
And so it makes us anxious that anticipating the future concern situation, right? Our brain loves certainty. Part of how it has evolved to keep us safe over time is that it looks for safety in certainty. And yet all writers live in a state of constant uncertainty. We don't know what this book is gonna turn out to be. We don't know how it's going to be received. We don't know how people are gonna respond to our work, right? So many things we don't know. And often we also live in what I think Sadie Smith called the Great Gap, which is that that gap between the big dream that we have for the work, the kind of glistening glimmering, you know, dream on a hill, the, the brilliant book we hope to create, the brilliant poem we hope to write, and our skills at the moment, and what we're ca, what we're capable of right now.
We all live in that uncertainty about I have this great idea. Will I, am I up to it? Will I be able to realize this creative dream I have? So we're always living in uncertainty. We're always living in a kind of unknowing and the creative unconscious. The amount of time we spend there, that's what we're doing. We're living in this unknowing and kind of, you know, laying down one brick at a time. So we know the next word and we know the next sentence, but we don't know the next chapter and we don't know the ending, and we don't know act two. And right? So it's even in the process of writing, in the process of developing our craft, we live constantly with uncertainty. And that can result in creative anxiety. It can result in thoughts that generate fear in us. And we don't even know we're, we're afraid.
But I guarantee you that if you have been avoiding your writing at any point, you are afraid and it's generated creative anxiety for you. And again, we all haven't, we all experience some form of this. And so it's all about how do we first acknowledge that we all experience this, and then how do we manage it? Because as resilient writers, we wanna be writing for the rest of our lives. We wanna be enjoying the process. And so a lot of the work that we end up doing in the Writer's Flow studio, in first book finish, the programs that I run, is learning how to deal with our minds, learning how to manage our minds and manage our creative anxiety. So I'm gonna go over a couple of ways we can do this. And the first thing, as I've said, is to acknowledge it and to understand that it's normal.
So whenever you find yourself avoiding your writing, or whenever you find yourself in that like period of rumination where you are convinced that you know, your poems are terrible, the story isn't working, the book isn't working, you don't know what you're doing, everybody's gonna find out that you're a complete imposter and your thoughts are just circling, circling, circling, pause. Notice those thoughts and name it as creative anxiety. And just say to yourself, okay, I'm experiencing some creative anxiety now. And what that does is it just normalizes it and it helps you feel less caught up in it. It helps you get some distance from it. So we can say to ourselves, Hey, it's okay. My brain doesn't love the uncertainty I'm living with right now. It's natural for me as an artist, as a writer to be experiencing creative anxiety about this project and about myself as a writer.
And that's okay. Okay? So that's the first thing is acknowledging it, normalizing it, letting it be okay that this is a thing you're feeling. There's no point in fighting reality, right? It just, it just enhances our suffering when we do that. So what we know is that we're experiencing creative anxiety. There we go. And so observing is really, really important. I like to think about creative anxiety in two ways. And one is preventative. How can we prevent creative anxiety from taking us over in the long term? And then thinking about it in curative ways? How can we stop creative anxiety in its tracks and get back on track, you know, and, and doing the writing we need to do. Now, I'm gonna offer a caveat here. I'm not a therapist. I'm not a psychiatrist or a psychoanalyst or any kind of mental health professional.
So if you think you have really severe anxiety issues, then you really should be seeking out professional assistance. And this isn't that. This is guidance for those of us that have the completely normal run-of-the-mill, totally routine creative anxiety that comes with being an artist in this culture and comes with being a writer. Okay? So let's talk about those two ways.
I talked about the preventative way to deal with creative anxiety and the more curative way to deal with creative anxiety in the moment when it happens. Okay? So the first thing we can think about is overcoming creative anxiety is the project of a lifetime, because we're all writers and we're always gonna have a certain amount of creative anxiety about ourselves as writers, about the project in front of us, about our craft, about all of it. Then it becomes a project of managing it.
And the things I'm gonna suggest to you are not like one and done. You don't like do this once and know that now your creative anxiety is sorted forevermore. These are tools that you develop and you work with. And I do find, I have found, and the writers I've worked with have found that over time your creative anxiety does lessen, right? It's like the it, we turn the volume down on some of these thoughts and they don't occur as often. And so we're not anxious as often.
And when we are anxious, we are then able to deal with it in the moment. So here are some of these preventative ways you can deal with creative anxiety. And I'm, I'm gonna take them from kind of the most practical to to something that takes a little more work. The most immediate practical thing you can do to prevent creative anxiety is to break your writing projects down into the smallest possible component.
Whenever you sit down to write only focus on that component. So this is something that's just come up in the coaching sessions we've been doing in first book finish, where what people are finding is when they sit down to write the enormity of the whole book, the enormity of the work they still have to do rises up before them and paralyzes them and generates anxiety, right? It generates fearful thoughts like, oh my God, I'm never gonna get this done. Oh my God, I still have so much to do, it'll never happen, right?
These are fearful thoughts, and because they're fearful thoughts, our body responds in an appropriate way. It says oh man, eating tiger approaching fight flight, freeze. And so the next thing you know, you've either, if you're me, you have flown to the fridge to see if there are any snacks or gone to clean the linen closet, right?
Or you are just generally avoiding your writing in a kind of flight or, or freeze reaction. So one of the things we can do is to chunk it down into smaller bite size pieces. But what you have to do, it's not enough to break it down, right? So you break it down, you say, today I'm working on this one scene. Let's say you're writing a romance novel or you have a scene in which there's a romance subplot a book in which there's a romance subplot. And so what you have to do now is you have to write the scene in which they kiss for the first time. That's all you have to do to write the scene in which two characters kiss for the first time. Fabulous. That's all you have to do. Write that on a sticky note. Right now, I'm writing the scene that is about my two characters kissing for the first time.
I am not writing the whole book. I'm also not writing the perfect finished scene of two characters kissing for the first time. I'm just drafting at a scene of my two characters kissing for the first time. It's all I'm doing right now. And so when you find yourself, your thoughts going to, what am I gonna do in act two? What am I gonna do in act three? How is this thing gonna be structured? Is my language good enough? Am I good enough? Am I gonna be mocked when this comes out? Why am I even writing a romance novel? You know, shouldn't I be writing something quote unquote more serious than this? People gotta make fun of me. You know, all the stuff that we think, all the stuff that we think, deep breath. Look at your sticky note. I'm just writing a scene in which two characters kissed for the first time.
And the only way you can do that is if you chunk your project down into small enough pieces. Maybe all you're doing in that session is writing 250 words, right? Today, all I'm doing is writing 250 words. That's all I have to do today. All I have to do is write a list of the scenes that I'm gonna delete from this book. That's all I have to do.
So you chunk it down as much as you can, and then you, every time you sit down, you remind yourself and you constantly bring yourself back to, it's okay, I'm not worrying about revision right now. I'm just drafting. I'm just getting down 250 words on my draft. Okay? So that's the first most practical tip I have for hopefully preventing some of the creative anxiety. But it does take you breathing and bringing yourself back to that thought of right now I'm just doing this one little thing.
The second thing is related, and this is thought shifting. So if you're in the Writer's Flow studio with me, you know, we talk about this a lot. This is based on something called the Model, which comes out. It has deep roots in cognitive behavioural therapy and was popularized as a coaching model by Brooke Castillo. She has a podcast called The Life Coach School, if you wanted to look that up. And so essentially what we do is we acknowledge that our emotions are caused by our thoughts. So the way the model works is there's a circumstance or a fact in the world. The fact is, I need to write a scene for this book about two characters kissing. And then based on that thought, and based on that fact, rather, we have a thought. And the thought is, oh my God, I've never written this kind of scene before.
I've never written this kind of book before. I don't know if I'm up for it. I don't know if I have the skills to do this. That's the thought. The emotion then is anxiety. It's fear. Right? Now. You have like a, a little knot in your gut. Your hands are sweaty. Maybe your heart rate is raised, your blood pressure is up, and you're starting to panic a little bit, okay? That's the emotion in your body. So the circumstance, or the fact was, I gotta write a scene about two people kissing. The thought was, holy shit, I'm not up for this. I don't know if I can do it. And the emotion that was generated as a, as a result was anxiety or fear. From there, all emotions lead to an action. And so in this case, your action might be to get up and walk away from your writing desk, and then to be avoiding your writing because you're afraid.
You're afraid. So you're avoidant based on that action. We get a result. The result is your novel is not being written. That scene is not being written, and therefore, down the road, the ultimate extended result is your book won't be finished. Right? So we had a circumstance or a fact in the world. No drama in a fact just is what it's, we had a thought about it. Woo. That's full of drama. And now because we've had a negative thought about it or an anxious thought about it, we end up with anxiety and fear as our, as our emotion. And based on that emotion, we take an action.
In this case, it's a non-action, it's an avoidant action, avoidant behavior. And based on that avoidant behavior, we end up with a result in the world, which is the scene doesn't get written. Okay? So now what we can do is we can work backwards and we can say, all right, what's a new thought?
What's a more helpful thought I can have based on that reality in the world? So our circumstance or or fact was this book needs a scene where two people kissed for the first time. That's the fact. Our thought can then be something more helpful. Something like, look at me. I'm learning how to write scenes where two people kiss. I've never done this before. So I'm learning as a writer, I'm growing as a writer. How exciting is that, right? And so all of a sudden, from fear, we get into excitement, right? And then based on our excitement, we're more likely to take the action of writing the scene. And voila, the result in the world is scene is written because that much closer to being finished, right? So what you wanna do is you have to observe your thoughts. And then when you notice that you are thinking an, an anxiety provoking thought about a fact, you find a more helpful thought.
Now I find that, so what happens is your, your brain filters your thoughts. And so if you try to go from my, my writing is awful. Why did I ever think I could be a writer? I don't know how to write to I am writing the most brilliant book ever. Your brain is gonna be like, ah, yeah, no, you're not right? So you have to find like a, you have to gentle your way into it. You have to find a, a shift in thought that is subtle that your brain will take. And so that's why I love, Hey, look at me. I'm learning how to write a scene in which two people kissed for the first time. I love it because my brain will accept that I'm learning how to do a new thing. And that's kind of fun, right? It will accept I'm invested in growing as a writer and learning as a writer.
And so we'll accept that this is a thing I'm doing right now. But it won't accept that when I do it for the first time. It's completely brilliant. So that's not a helpful thought. Okay? So you wanna find, this is called thought shifting and it's about finding more helpful thoughts. It's not about toxic positivity, yada, yada, yada. It's about just finding something that shifts you to a mindset where you're not anxious and instead you're in a different state and can actually take action. Okay? So we had chunking our projects down. We had thought shifting. Now I wanna talk to you about something that's more long-term, but has really transformed everything for me. And that is meditation. So as all kinds of different forms of meditation, everything from body scans to loving kindness, meditation to guided meditations, go to YouTube, type in meditation and you'll find something.
Meditation gets you there eventually. This is the reason I say some of these things are longer term preventative things, is they take practice meditation when you first do it. I used to think I was the kind of person who couldn't meditate and you used to make me anxious to meditate. Cause I thought, why can other people meditate and I can't meditate? And I stuck with it long enough, stuck with it long enough to really feel the change. And the change comes in the realization that you are not your thoughts. I am not my thoughts. I'm someone who has thoughts and I can watch them come and I can watch them go. And I don't have to ride the roller coaster of my thoughts, right? The roller coaster of my thoughts says that today I'm a horrible person and nobody likes me, and I don't need to ride that roller coaster.
That can just be a thought that comes and goes, right? So meditation for me, and I don't do it... There are people who like do 20 minutes in the morning, 20 minutes at night. I aspire to be those people. I love those people. But I am a 10 minutes in the morning person and I just do paying attention to my breath as I breathe in. And then as I breathe out, just 10 minutes of that. And then when my mind wanders, which it will, and I find myself off into thoughts about the day or, you know, what people think of me or my writing or anything like that, I just bring it back. I just bring it back to my breath. So it's a really simple just breathing observation kind of meditation. There's all kinds you can do. I also love a guided meditation and I love a loving kindness meditation, that kind of thing.
Body scans great stuff. So meditation, if it's not something you've tried, give it a try. What do you have to, what do you have to lose? If you find yourself being someone who lives with a lot of creative anxiety around yourself as a writer around your writing this, this really can help, but it takes practice over the long term. Okay?
So those are three kind of longer term preventative things that we can practice that can help us with creative anxiety, chunking our projects down into the smallest possible pieces, and focusing just on that piece rather than worrying about the future and what's to come next thought, shifting towards more helpful thoughts and meditation. So those are the three kind of long-term preventative pieces of work you can do to manage creative anxiety. I do have a curative tip for you. And when I say curative, I mean it in the sense of it helps in the moment.
Let's say that you are gonna work on your novel. Let's say you are writing a p literary fiction. You're writing literary fiction and you are really worried about the structure of your book. And so you're feeling anxious about that. And as a result of feeling anxious, you've been avoiding your writing. Now you're starting to feel bad about avoiding your writing. You're in a real cycle, right? Feeling bad about avoiding or writing. What does that lead to? Usually more avoiding and writing <laugh>. We get into these cycles, right?
So let's say you're writing literary fiction and you're worried about the structure of your book, which is a legitimate concern as a writer, of course, you are right to be worried about the to be thinking about the structure of your book. That is a legitimate craft concern. And it's one of the ways you are living in uncertainty, cuz you haven't figured it out yet.
You will figure it out, but you haven't figured it out yet. And so your brain is in this state of uncertainty, it doesn't like it. So the certainty it reaches for is that you are never gonna figure it out and that it's going to fail, right? It just reaches for that future certainty. But that's just a thought. And as we've just said, you are not your thoughts. That's just a thought you're having. You can watch it come, you can watch it go.
But the curative piece is triggering the parasympathetic nervous system. So your nervous system functions in two ways. One is the sympathetic nervous system, which keeps you in arousal moving forward. Okay? This is you in your go-go, go state. The parasympathetic nervous system is the side of your nervous system that helps you to be calm, alright? And reduces anxiety, reduces arousal.
Your parasympathetic nervous system is the place you get to when you do something like deep breathing. It is a biological response when you do what I'm about to suggest, your body, the system of your body just responds in this way. It's an automatic biological trigger. And so you can use it as a hack, frankly, to overcome creative anxiety in the morning, in the moment, rather. So let's say you're thinking about sitting down at your schedule, time to write and you're feeling anxious and you're thinking, maybe I won't, maybe I'll just avoid it. Pause. Okay? I see myself thinking that I see myself feeling resistant. I see myself, I acknowledge that I'm experiencing creative anxiety, totally normal.
Now what I'm gonna do is before I write, I'm gonna go to my desk. I'm gonna sit down and before I write, I'm gonna trigger my parasympathetic nervous system. There's a few ways you can do this. The one I'm gonna suggest is set a timer for three minutes of deep breathing. You're gonna breathe in through your nose, you're gonna breathe out through your mouth, gonna close your eyes and you're gonna observe your breath. What does it feel like when you inhale?
What does it feel like in the body when you exhale? Where are you holding your breath in the body? What's the temperature of your breath? Is your breath fast when you start or slow? Is it shallow or deep? Is it getting deeper? Right? Close your eyes. Set a timer. Just focus on your breath. Three minutes, the timer goes off, pick up your pen, go into your writing session.
Then let's say you're in your writing session. You are working on a scene and you find yourself thinking, oh, it's not working scene's, not working, don't know what to do. I'm really bad at dialogue. Oh my God, this, this book is filled with dialogue. What am I gonna do? It's awful. People are gonna laugh at me, right? You're down a road, you can feel yourself down a road. Maybe you feel your shoulders rising, your breath getting shallow. Maybe you feel the urge to flee your desk. Okay? That's how you, these are some of the ways you may have other ways. Some people get the munchies, some people like find their eyes, get they get tired, they wanna go for a nap.
Whatever your personal kind of creative anxiety things are, begin to notice when they arise and when they arise, stop writing. Set your timer again for two to three minutes. Do your activity to trigger your parasympathetic nervous system. Deep breathing, simplest. You can always be doing the breathing right in through the nose, out through the mouth. And that will trigger, it will trigger your parasympathetic nervous system. And then you pick up your pen when the timer goes off and you write again. Okay? So here we have some ways to deal with creative anxiety. First thing we do is we understand it as normal.
We see ourselves as people who want to learn and grow and write new work and get better as writers and creates something out of nothing, which is amazing, which is daunting and fosters creative anxiety in us. And we know that our brain doesn't like that state of uncertainty and unknowing. And so some level of creative anxiety is always gonna be normal and we can just learn how to roll with it.
We can just learn how to manage it. We can learn over time by practicing things like chunking down our projects and staying focused on the smallest piece by thought, shifting and finding more helpful thoughts by meditation. Those are things we can practice in the long term to help us with creative anxiety. And in the moment when it happens, we can focus on our breathing in a timed session in through the nose, out through the mouth for three minutes.
So I hope this has been helpful. First of all, I hope it's helped normalize creative anxiety, guys. Creative anxiety is the new black. It is who you are as a writer, who you are as an artist. It is a natural part of your being to wonder if you're gonna be able to create this amazing thing that you have in your head. It doesn't change. I can tell you as someone who's, who's published books, what awards published poems in lit mags, all of that stuff, it doesn't change when I sit down with a fresh work. It's just gonna happen. So we learn to manage it, right?
We dedicate ourselves to being someone who can cope with and manage creative anxiety. And I will say that for me, learning to manage creative anxiety has had spillover effects into the kind of anxiety I have in my day-to-day life because I no, no longer see it.
You know, let's say I'm experiencing anxiety about financing my retirement, right? If I experience when I experience anxiety about that, I know how to manage it because I know I can see that I'm all cut up in the anticipation of a future concern. I know what it is. I know that I'm not my thoughts. I know that I can manage my thoughts. I know that I can trigger my parasympathetic nervous system and that all gets me to a more productive state where I'm able to take the actions I need to take. So I hope this episode has been helpful to you.
I'm sending you all the love over the wires of the internet and I hope that you are having a fabulous writing week this week and that this has really been helpful for you. Thank you so much for being here. If you haven't yet had a chance to leave a review, I would really appreciate it. You are able to leave a review in the app you're using to listen to me right now and it only takes a minute or even less. So please hop in and give me a review. I would really, really appreciate it. It helps me reach other people who need to hear these kinds of messages. Alright, take care. Bye-Bye.
Thanks so much for hanging out with me today and for listening all the way to the end. I hope you enjoyed today's episode of the Resilient Writers Radio Show. While you're here, I would really appreciate it if you'd consider leaving a rating and review of the show. You can do that in whatever app you're using to listen to the show right now, and it just takes a few minutes. Your ratings and reviews tell the podcast algorithm Gods that. Yes, this is a great show. Definitely recommend it to other writers and that will help us reach new listeners who might need a boost in their writing lives today as well. So please take a moment and leave a review. I'd really appreciate it and I promise to read every single one. Thank you so much.