Why anxiety makes journalists miss deadlines

Anxiety creates a cycle in which reporters continue to miss deadlines because of fear and worry. Continue Reading Why anxiety makes journalists miss deadlines

By Carine Abouseif

It’s a Friday night, and I sit at the desk that’s been crammed into the corner of my room. Piles of paper balance on top of books, magazines and notebooks. The cursor on my screen flickers again and again.

I swivel in my chair. Spread out on the floor are seven documents, transcripts of interviews I’ve done in preparation for the article I’m supposed to be writing. Yellow highlighter marks the important quotes. I’ve even written a thorough outline. All I have to do it is fill it in.

I push through the first paragraph while fighting the urge to walk away from my desk. The words start to blur together. The longer I force myself to stay at my desk, the worse it gets. But I can’t stop—I’m on a deadline.

I’d like to say that I’ve always been able to push through that feeling and produce an amazing article. Sometimes, I can. But sometimes, I can’t. Instead, I spiral into a panic. I can’t breathe. I have to step away.

I’m not the first or the last journalist to deal with anxiety, especially when it comes to deadlines. But we don’t like to talk about it because deadlines are the job.

“Deadlines are scary anyway because deadlines often mean evaluation,” said Sarah Thompson, a clinical psychologist and the clinical co-ordinator at the Centre of Student Development and Counselling at Ryerson University.

For journalists, though, she said deadlines can be even more daunting because of the personal investment involved in creating a piece of work. There’s also the knowledge that the piece is going out for everyone to read, watch, listen to, criticize.

But it gets even worse for some of us. “If in addition, you live with a personal history that has predisposed you to prepare to be judged or to fear that you will be judged harshly or disliked or rejected in some way, then every deadline can reflect having to face those old fears…and the feelings can be much more intense,” said Thompson.

Most of us are familiar with the concept of an inner critic—the voice inside your head that tells you you’re stupid, or this article is stupid or that sentence is stupid. For people who suffer from anxiety, that voice can be paralyzing.

We begin to confuse that voice with the voice of our editor. The editor becomes what in psychology is referred to as the projected critic. We begin to believe in the projected critic, said Thompson, when we make the assumption that someone else is going to deliver the same messages our critic does even when there’s no evidence to believe they would.

“In my experience, people avoid something when they find the alternative to be worse,” Thompson said. “So, if, in the moment, the anxiety or the panic or the shame feels so unbearable, people are likely to avoid to stop the feelings.”

We avoid the work to protect ourselves. But that can make things even worse. Thompson said avoidance tends to maintain the anxiety cycle. We start to tell ourselves that somehow it’s going to be OK, or somehow we’re going to figure it all out, but it’s not. “It’s effective in the moment, but the anxiety keeps creeping back in, the deadline comes and goes and we end up feeling worse about ourselves.”

Avoidance goes hand in hand with procrastination and perfectionism. “People will avoid beginning for fear that it will never be good enough,” Thompson explained.

And then, finally, you miss the deadline, and the guilt sets in. “The problem is that you weren’t in the headspace to be able to try,” Thompson said.

So, what do you do when you’re paralyzed with anxiety and the deadline looms closer and closer? Thompson explained there is a moment of recognition. A moment where you put aside the critic, and ask yourself realistically whether you’ll be able to make the deadline and map out all the steps you’ll need to take to complete the assignment.

How many minutes, hours or days will it take to identify the sources you need, interview those sources, draw from the material, write, edit and submit? It seems simple enough, but it’s the difference between creating a pragmatic plan and one based out of worry.

And if you aren’t going to be able to finish the story on time, it’s time to contact your editor and let her know what’s going on. For many, this goes against every instinct. For an anxiety sufferer, the fear becomes that the editor will criticize us the way we criticize ourselves, that they won’t understand and that they’ll be so upset they won’t want to work with us again.

This Magazine editor Lauren McKeon said that moment is critical to editors. She said the moment you realize things are going wrong, or you think you’re not going to get the story you thought you were going to get, or even the moment you start to feel anxious about your story, you need to let the editor know.

“A good editor won’t be angry if you’re not turning up sources,” she said. “We’d be happy that you told us with enough time to figure out a plan.”

“We’re humans, too, we understand that you’re human and you have a life outside of the job. We have contingency plans, we can work with you to find a solution.” You might get an angry editor if you only communicate the night the before the deadline, but it’s still better than saying nothing at all.

For some, much of this will seem really obvious. But anxiety can rob people of the headspace to think about these things, to make these decisions and to believe that an editor might be compassionate. Avoidance seems like the only way to stay safe.

Thompson said a culture of silence can play into these patterns. “If we live in a culture where normal worry, anxiety, nervousness are silenced or seen as a sign of weakness, we quickly learn not to talk about it,” she said. “By not talking about something we develop some associative beliefs. ‘I must be alone in this. I look right I look left no one else is talking about this so they must not be feeling it.’ Incorrect.”

I’d take it a step further. If we keep reinforcing the idea that meeting deadlines is only about our technical skills and some macho ability to push through pressure, then we’ll never learn to deal with these emotions. And the cycle will just keep going.