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Took these pictures in a cold San Francisco afternoon. It was a somber day full of beauty and roaring winds. I also took the opportunity to do an impromptu livestream of the scenery. I enjoyed reading the flurry of comments from people around the globe admiring the view and finding the sound of the waves relaxing.

College Writing: How to Begin Writing When You Have Crippling Anxiety

Not only is it possible to overcome this obstacle, but you could even turn your anxiety disorder into an asset.

For many people, writing can at times seem like an insurmountable task. The reality is that if your state of mind is not in the right place, your writing will suffer. Sadly, when you have an anxiety disorder, this becomes a constant problem, especially as a student. Many students complain about how hard it is for them to start writing no matter what strategies they use. Others eventually push through, but they feel that their writing is disjointed and unconvincing. Why is this?

This is because heightened levels of anxiety impair your ability to speak with the rational side of your brain. Your brain is in overdrive, looking for anything and everything that could go wrong. The good news is that not only is it possible to overcome this obstacle, but you could even turn your anxiety disorder into an asset. Whether you suffer from GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder), panic attacks, or simply become more anxious when under pressure, it’s possible to turn anxiety into an aid. Here’s two useful strategies to help you get started on your paper.

Pre-writing warm up

Photo byLukasbieriStarting to write without a general grasp of the main points will only stress you out, especially when you feel like you lost your way or ran out of material.

Before actually starting the writing process, you should take some time to get rid of some potential obstacles. The objective of the pre-writing warm up is to put your mind in the right mindset, or at least closer to it. For that, it’s important to make sure to drink enough water and eat something light but satisfying. Dehydration and hunger can quickly become stressors, so minimize them by taking preemptive measures. Additionally, make yourself as comfortable as possible by wearing loose clothing. Also, take a nap if you have enough time, especially if you have a sleep deficit. Anxiety is already impairing your cognitive functions, don’t make it worse with lack of sleep. It’s also worth noting that if a doctor prescribed medications for you anxiety disorder, you should take these before you start writing. If they interfere with clear thinking, try taking a smaller dose so you’re able to work without letting anxiety freeze you. Both extremes are bad so trust your judgment on what works best for you. Finally, remember to do some preliminary research and gather sources before you start writing. Practice organization by keeping these sources close to you so you don’t stop to look for them after. Starting to write without a general grasp of the main points will only stress you out, especially when you feel like you lost your way or ran out of material.

Warming up for a productive writing session is substantially less stressful compared to actually beginning the writing process. So how do you get over the initial hump in the writing process?

Start Simple

Remember to alternate between brainstorming and critical thinking! Illustration byElisaRivaThe first mistake I see students make when they begin to write is starting with a thesis statement that’s both excessively vague and hard to grasp.

When you’re anxious, everything feels exaggerated and overwhelming. That being said, you can work your way around this if you implement a system that keeps you accountable and organized. This is possible by structuring your writing process in two alternating phases: brainstorming and critical thinking. Since switching between one and the other can be hard when anxious, it’s best to start simple. This is especially the case if you still feel shaky about what your main idea will be.

The first mistake I see students make when they begin to write is starting with a thesis statement that’s both excessively vague and hard to grasp. Before they realize it, that big idea is a long sentence leading to nowhere. You know this is the case when the thesis statement feels intangible and is hard to put into words. When this is the case, it’s common to feel as if the idea is hard to keep track of, as if it were eluding you. Feeling a compulsion to write it down because it feels like you might “lose it” is another sign of a shaky thesis statement. Not to mention that it’s also a sign of high levels of anxiety.

Photo byTeroVesalainenClose your eyes and clear your mind for one moment. Think about a guiding idea for your paper. It doesn’t have to be your thesis statement just yet, it can be vague at first.

While it’s generally okay to do this when you’re brainstorming and looking for inspiration, you must exercise caution before using these ideas in their raw form as a starting point. This is because you have yet to engage with these ideas while utilizing the rational part of your brain. Plus, abstract thinking is not easy, and it becomes harder to achieve when under stress. So before you start writing with that grand idea in mind, do this first:

Close your eyes and clear your mind for one moment. Think about a guiding idea for your paper. It doesn’t have to be your thesis statement just yet, it can be vague at first. Keep a mental image of it and write down this vague idea. The first key step is to make sure that it feels like you can grasp it without losing your train of thought. It might seem overly simplistic at first, especially since it seems so robust and complete in your mind, but it’s better to start with a solid foundation.

Now that you have your first sentence, what’s next? You need to dissect it. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is it missing?
  • What are the potential pitfalls?
  • Is the main idea clear?
  • Which parts are essential? Which parts are unnecessary?

Now keep in mind that this is a placeholder thesis statement, it should change and improve as you get closer to having the first draft.

Make sure to annotate, as well as add and subtract information as needed. Use these notes to edit that first sentence and repeat the process multiple times if necessary. The goal is to make sure that it is simple, easy to grasp, with room to branch out when the time comes. The objective is to be able to easily recall it when you lose your way. This will be your compass while writing. Again, don’t worry if it sounds too simple, your anxious mind will serve you well and will help you flesh out the details once your first paragraphs begin to take shape. Next, re-edit it until you’re able to more or less see the possibilities of that temporary thesis statement. Now keep in mind that this is a placeholder thesis statement, it should change and improve as you get closer to having the first draft. Finally, make note of everything you found unnecessary and removed during the process, these edits can become sources of inspiration later on. These are perfect for when you need to add depth to your text. Having a separate text file for these is a good way to keep track of them without letting them become distractions.

Photo by 3844328Now that you have the main idea to guide you, you can begin the actual writing process. Remember to keep that thesis statement at hand while you write. Don’t be afraid to re-edit it. It will change as you make adjustments to your paper.

In a future post I’ll talk about how to proceed after these steps for those struggling to connect paragraphs. It can be particularly challenging to continue the writing process while also maintaining good flow and logical progression from one paragraph to the next.

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