Anxiety during graduate school is normal, and a small amount of anxiety can actually be healthy. However, if it starts interfering with work, daily routine, or mood, it can be a sign of a problem. We’ll address general anxiety in another post, but something we hear fairly often are complaints about writing anxiety. Clients are completely fine, and then freeze up when thinking about or starting research or writing their proposal or dissertation. This could also manifest in writer’s block, or feeling “stuck.” We know that feeling of dread when sitting in front of your computer, aka “the blank screen of death,” paralyzed with writing anxiety.

We can help talk you through practical problems during a scheduled phone consultation, like not knowing what to focus on, or choosing a framework or research question. It can be helpful to talk things through and bounce ideas off another person who’s been where you are. Some people know what they need to do, but still feel anxiety about writing – and that’s okay. Feeling anxiety isn’t the problem; the problem is when it interferes with your work and productivity.

Here are some tips that can help manage writing anxiety. The trick is to find what works for you, and one might work better at one time, while another is just what you need another time.

  1. Just do it. Yup, similar to that Nike slogan, just do it. Anne Lamott, in her wonderful book about writing, Bird by Bird, had the phrase “butt in chair.” Every day, at the same time every day, put your butt in the chair. You might write one word, you might write 20 pages. You might write nothing. But keep putting your butt in the chair. Show up. Be persistent. Write. You can always revise or delete. But just write.
  2. Breathe deeply. When you’re anxious, you breathe more shallowly, telling your body to tense up. This kind of breathing feeds into the stress response. Deep breathing, on the other hand, activates the body’s relaxation response, and can lower stress. Body and mind are inextricably linked, and by relaxing your body, you can help relax your mind. One simple breathing exercise is to make your exhales longer than your inhales. This tells your body it’s time to rest and digest and will help lower your heart rate.
  3. Break it down. A common problem we see is that clients tend to see the big picture, or the entire project – which would intimidate anyone! Don’t be afraid to break it down into small, manageable chunks. Not only will this help make the project less overwhelming, but it will also be easier to reach smaller goals along the way, providing the positive reinforcement you need. So instead of sitting down with the goal of writing Chapter 1, why not break it down into smaller sections, and focus on writing one section at a time?
  4. Find support. Talk to a counselor if your anxiety is completely interfering with your work, and nothing helps alleviate it. This might be a sign of something bigger going on. Inquire about academic support groups, where you can commiserate with fellow graduate students and share tips on how to juggle dissertation work or writing troubles. Social support is key, and can reduce stress and anxiety.
  5. Hold yourself accountable. Buddy up with a classmate to commit to a writing goal, and every day, call or text each other your word count for the day. Tell your partner, friend, or family member about a daily or weekly goal, and have them call you regularly to get updates. Make your goals known to other people, to help keep you accountable, instead of procrastinating or shoving it aside.
  6. Progress, not perfection. Don’t forget to recognize how far you’ve come: finishing your proposal, constructing an outline, choosing research questions, writing a chapter – a dissertation is made up of parts, and it’s worth giving yourself a pat on the back for each thing you achieve. Don’t get discouraged about rewrites or revisions, because it’s a sign you’re moving forward, and getting that much closer to your goal. Keep writing, keep moving forward. You can always revise, always cut things, always redo. It won’t be perfect the first time, or maybe not even the third –and if you ask any student about their dissertation, it’s likely that he or she will ALWAYS say they could have done more. It’s a constant work in progress, even after publication. The important thing is to keep going.

If you’re having trouble with your dissertation, contact us today to learn more about our consultation and coaching services. We’ve helped thousands of students break through impasses to take their work to the next level.

What are your tried-and-true ways to break through that writing anxiety?