Writing as therapy: the anxiety sponge

14 May 2014

To investigate the theme of this year's Mental Health Awareness Week, anxiety, we asked some writers to talk about their experience of it. In her book The View on the Way Down, Rebecca Wait tells the incredibly moving story of a family deeply affected by depression, which she herself suffered from in her teens. Here, she talks about her experience of anxiety and how writing both helps her escape it and creates a few problems of its own.


I watch as a brief, pained expression passes across my boyfriend’s face. ‘Please,’ he says, ‘can’t you just be normal?’

I’ve been trying to explain to him my anxieties about plagiarism – the chance that I might have read something years ago, internalized it, then unconsciously passed it off later as my own. I expand, as I have often before, upon the potential consequences of this: I will be sued, my books will be pulped, they’ll write about me in the Telegraph, I’ll be publicly disgraced. (‘You can’t be publicly disgraced,’ a friend once pointed out, ‘if you’re not actually famous.’ An uncharitable comment.)

My boyfriend describes it like this, the way I interact with the world: I have a vast, nebulous mass of free-floating anxiety in my head. It’s constantly searching, parasitically, for the next non-issue to latch onto. This is a good way of putting it. Once it’s found its target, the anxiety sponge, all perspective vanishes, and I am left with the repetitive, smothering cycle of my own worry.

I wrote my first novel about my teenage experience of depression, and feel strongly that it’s an illness that needs to be talked about. Depression is nasty. It kills people. It nearly killed me. However, I am less used to discussing depression’s wily companion, anxiety, which has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. People tell me to be normal, but this is normal for me. The trouble is, anxiety doesn’t always sound like a serious problem. (‘Really?’ I imagine people are thinking. ‘You feel worried? We all feel worried.’) But at its worst – and mine is far from the worst – it is crippling. It can stop you leaving the house. It can stop you doing your job. It makes you feel trapped and terrified and hopeless.

Writing brings with it fertile new hunting-ground for my free-floating anxiety cloud. But all the same, it helps. The act of writing – when it’s going well – has an extraordinary way of making the world recede for a few hours. It allows you to shut down that part of your mind that has got stuck on a single, horrible track, or at least to turn away from it for a while. Writing can be a way of imposing order on a world that is starting to look frayed at the edges.

Read more
Writing as therapy: the narrative of anxiety by Professor Tanya Byron
Writing as therapy: healing and distancing by Sarah Rayner

For more information on Mental Health Awareness Week, visit their website.

The View on the Way DownFind out more about Rebecca Wait's novel The View on the Way Down

Main image (c) Martin Fisch / flickr.com





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