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For the past 4 years, I've developed a severe problem with writing anxiety. It's become so bad, that I had to drop out of my first university because I wasn't able to keep up with the course work. I've tried to manage the problem on my own, but with very limited success. Part of my problem is that the reaction is very visceral. I quite literally feel like throwing up when I approach a writing assignment. I haven't been able to unlearn that reaction.

I suspect a great deal of my anxiety is coming from perfectionism. I know I shouldn't strive to make my first draft perfect, but it's like I can't help it. I have a lot of difficulty bypassing my inner critic when writing first drafts, so it makes the whole process very stress-inducing and unpleasant, which makes me put off the writing entirely, which then leads to binge-writing sessions which are just terrible.

I was wondering if anyone had some tricks for bypassing the inner critic and mitigating the nausea.

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    Go see a therapist. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is perfect for treating this kind of problem. Your symptoms are too severe for self-help. It's already destroying your career, so don't hesitate but get help. All the best! – user5645 Oct 12 '14 at 7:29
  • I agree with @what. This isn't something you can work around with a listicle of helpful tips. If your anxiety is that severe, you need professional therapy. I also agree that CBT is the right place to start. – Lauren Ipsum Oct 12 '14 at 11:57
  • If you're struggling to get out to a therapist, in the meantime you may want to check out Mood Gym: moodgym.anu.edu.au/welcome, it's an excellent onlione CBT course (though a bit patronising) – CLockeWork Oct 13 '14 at 11:27
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The comments on your post suggest therapy, and I think it is good advice. This is more than just writer's block or procrastination. It sounds like you have serious anxiety that's triggered by writing. Here are some things you might try if you can't afford a therapist.

First, pick a book and copy the text out of it. This will help you get used to the physical activity of typing or writing by hand without being concerned with what you are writing. When you can copy text without feeling anxious, then you are ready to move to the next step.

Second, move around the text you copied. Try rearranging the sentences in paragraph, or taking one sentence out of each paragraph to make a new story with the same words. Don't worry about how legible it is. You're getting used to the feeling of editing. When you feel comfortable moving text around like this, move on to the next part.

Third, play with the text you copied. Take a passage and substitute a few verbs and nouns with a synonym chosen from a thesaurus at random. Rewrite it using different pronouns (instead of third-person "he/she/it/them", write it in second-person "you", for instance). Rearrange the words in the sentences. Remove all the conjunctions. Do some small things like this to help yourself see that the same thing can be expressed in many different ways, and none of these is right or wrong.

Fourth, write something short that's not important. Something that has no deadline or grade or degree attached to it. A fake advertisement for an imaginary product might suffice. Write as much as you can in ten minutes, and then walk away from it. Come back to it in a day or a week, and revise it until you like it, or throw it away if you hate it. Then do it all again next week. From here, work your way into writing some things that carry more baggage.

These steps will hopefully lead you to feel that you are in control of your work. Hopefully, a few exercises like this, and you'll be over the worst parts of your anxiety. You can do this. You wrote this question here, so that's encouraging!

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I have struggled with my inner critic for a long time and here are some things that have worked for me:

  • Talking to someone you trust about your writing: Everyone writes differently but I don't think anyone gets it how they want it first time. Find someone who is either an avid reader or studying English that you know and trust and show them some of your writing. Seeing someone enjoy your writing can really help reduce anxiety. Someone who is a good critic is always helpful.
  • Set short goals: If you are writing for an assignment/dissertation/etc it can be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. When I had to write my PhD thesis my supervisor gave me the advice to set short goals and use bullet points to layout the structure (a bullet point per paragraph with the basic idea).
  • Break the monotony: Along with short goals give yourself rewards for achieving them. They don't need to be big. Ones I use include: a nice cup of tea, chocolate, reading a short story, a short walk.

I still struggle with my inner critic but these techniques helped me churn out a nearly 200 page thesis in about half a year. It does get easier once you get going I assure you :)

  • If you have tried all these things with limited success then seeking professional help via therapy (as suggested by several commenters) is probably the way forwards.
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Gee, I agree with what. You need a specialist. Something that helped me, though (I was a perfectionist, too) is this quote:

"Art is never finished, only abandoned." - Leonardo da Vinci

Give up perfection. Look at your writing as something that improves incrementally rather than something that is fixed. You can always come back and edit later; something that's even easier with all the technology we have today.

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Giving up perfectionism is great advice. It's also like blithely telling someone to give up heroin. I tried to overcome my perfectionistic approach to writing fiction by doing some simple writing exercises, only to find that I was just as phobic about doing the exercises. I even spellcheck my own diary!
I think the best way to approach this is not to think of it as a writing problem. Begin by being less perfectionistic in other areas of your life. Live with a bit of mess. Don't pay the bills immediately they come in. Go out with greasy hair and notice how little these things really matter. Aim lower in your goals too. Settle for a ten percent improvement rather than 100 percent. Aiming too high can make you feel overwhelmed and paralysed. Aiming lower gives you a can-do feeling and you end up accomplishing more than you expected.

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