How Artists Can Conquer Anxiety

Eugene Sergeev / (Shutterstock.com)
Eugene Sergeev / (Shutterstock.com)

Anxiety is incapacitating, frustrating, and often chronic. It’s especially harmful for creative types, where the work is so subjective and contingent on asserting one’s own voice. That sort of self-doubt is enormously limiting, because the creative process is guided internally.

Being an author brings many opportunities for my anxiety to be triggered. It’s especially bad when I’m coauthoring a book with a client. The process is almost always the same: I get a call from an agent or editor, feeling me out about working with a client. Then I wait. I have a conversation with the client and the agent to see if I’m the right fit for the job. Then I wait. We come to terms for the project. Then I wait. Contracts are signed, I start writing the book proposal, and finally I hand it over to the agent. Then I wait. The agent has edits to make to the proposal, so I try to accommodate them. Then I wait. The proposal goes to editors for a possible deal. Then I wait.

During each of these waiting periods—which can last from days to weeks but always feel like years—there is nothing I can do to help the process along. The work is out of my hands. Checking in will only make me a nuisance. The process has parallels for dancers, actors, or any other creative types. It’s awful. But it’s how things work, and I intellectually understand this very well.

My mind, however, has other ideas.

During each of these waiting periods I used to be filled with anxiety. To be fair, there were legitimate reasons to be concerned: What if the agent hated my book proposal? What if the proposal doesn’t sell? But anxiety takes these concerns and blows them completely out of proportion, screaming at me to do something by inducing a sense of impending resource-scarcity. What if? What if? WHAT IF…? It took me many iterations of going through this process before I realized that my anxiety was not simple, rational worrying. After six books, “What if you never work again?” is a technical possibility, something to think about, but it was hardly a reason for my adrenaline to spike.

What I hadn’t realized is how articulate the mind is. I’d always considered anxiety to simply be a physiological response, an increase in heart rate and a general uneasiness. I didn’t appreciate that anxiety would be able to actually speak to my fears so persuasively and with such precision. It was very chilling to realize that my mind was doing everything it could to induce a state of terror in me—and it was very good at it. It knew all my secrets! Worse, I was unable to escape it. There was no place else for me to go.

Sound familiar?

Once I understood what was happening, I tried to do a workaround. My mind would ask the same four or five questions over and over. So I opened up a Word document, wrote down those questions, and then wrote out contingency plans in the event that each of those fears came to pass. If the book deal fell through? Email a few other agents and check in with them. If I ran out of money? Sell some of my collectibles or take out a zero-interest credit card. In each scenario, I had alternatives that I could pursue. Perhaps some of the alternatives weren’t particularly palatable, and certainly none of them would be my first choice (by definition). But in no case would I be unable to avert the crisis.

This tempered my anxiety, but only to a point. Even though I had hypothetical answers, each of my concerns still remained as possibilities. After all, my hypothetical answers were not guarantees. The more I understood what was happening, the more frustrated I became. Not knowing what to do, I took up the habit of being away from my apartment as a means of distraction. Now it began to feel like my home was an uncomfortable place to be—a dangerous precedent, since that is where I do all of my work.

I was wandering in midtown Manhattan one day when I glanced across the street. The building looked familiar, but I couldn’t understand why. It was a fairly nondescript office building. I stood there for a second until I realized what it was: It was where I had one of my first jobs after graduating college.

I was only there for a week, but I remembered it vividly. My desk faced the wall, directly in front of the main door. Not only was there no semblance of privacy, but I felt on edge due to having people constantly behind me where I couldn’t see them. I couldn’t remember my boss’s name or her face, but I remembered her two-inch fingernails, the fact that she was in disbelief that “thrice” was a word, and the time she chided me for answering the phone with “hi” instead of “hello.”

I also remembered all the fears I had at the time: How should I handle the fact that my roommate moved her boyfriend into our apartment without informing me, let alone asking me? Would I be spending the rest of my life doing menial work for people who had middle-school literacy levels? Would I ever figure out what I actually wanted to do, other than “not work in an office”?

Of course, none of these problems remained unsolved. When the issues came up, I handled them. I’d landed a new job with a 33% raise, one far more technical in skill. When the roommate moved out to spawn her fugly dimwits, the rent was not a concern. And though it took a while, I figured out that I wanted to write—and have managed to make a living at it.

The best part was that this experience silenced my anxiety. Rather than anticipate solutions for potential problems in the future—which were limitless—I looked at the historical record. Every concern I ever had ended up being resolved. Of course some of the resolutions were awful, and many were painful. But at no time was my life over—and that is precisely what anxiety feels like. It feels like your life is over while your heart is beating stronger than ever and your mind is thinking with all its might at the precise same time.

Nowadays, the expected anxiety that comes with working in a field that is so unstable, fickle, and confounding is no longer a concern. As soon as I feel it start to creep in—a feeling very familiar to those of us who have it—all I have to do is remember that building. All I have to say to myself is, “Nothing you ever worried about has ever happened.”

The technique works for me, and it’s worked for my fellow artists whom I’ve told about it. All you have to do is go look at an old picture (or go to Google Street View!) and then stare at a building that meant something to you at one point. Remember what you feared—and remember how silly most of those fears ended up being. It’s especially effective if you actually stand there, because the memory’s sense of location is so strong.

Anxiety might be inevitable, but it can also be innocuous. TC mark

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