7 Tips to Writing Characters with Anxiety

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A few disclaimers here because we’re heading into delicate territory again. Eh, I’m just copying and pasting here.  I am not an expert on mental health by any means.  I read up on it and have my own experiences to work off, which is what fuels these posts.  Also, I always try to add some humor into my posts, especially the 7 Tip Lists.  I find that humor can relieve tension and allow for serious stuff to be listened to and swallowed more easily.  So, let’s get to this one . . . Okay . . . Yup . . . Staring it now . . . I’m really twitchy about this one because I’m not striking close to home. I’m hitting the roof dead center.

  1. Like depression and sadness, be careful using anxiety as a synonym for nervous or mixing the two up.  This can be done and I do it a lot too.  A person can be momentarily anxious and that’s fine.  When it comes to the mental illness, it’s much heavier and long-lasting.  A character with anxiety will see a small problem and have a reaction that one could say is ‘too big’ for it.  For example, maybe they are texting back and forth with a friend, but there is a sudden stop.  An anxious person will fixate on it for hours and imagine that they offended the friend, something bad happened, or any number of horrible ideas.  The possibility of the friend being busy, showering, bathroom, phone losing power, or anything innocent doesn’t click very often.
  2. Anxiety can make for awkward social situations, which may be tempting to play up for laughs.  It’s easier to do it for this than depression because people may focus on the physical side to the anxiety issue.  They may flail while babbling or comically rush out of the room in some fashion.  If this is the tone of the story then it can work since the character isn’t the only one being the source of humor.  If they’re the only ones that it happens to then you may want to rethink things.
  3. Panic attacks are a thing and they aren’t pretty.  Stereotypically, it’s shown as hyperventilating and nearly passing out.  There can be more to it and the severity isn’t always the same.  Chest pains, rabid heartbeat, chills hot flashes, and trembling show how some are visible and some are internal.  If the attack reaches the point where the character has limb spasms because of the shaking or even locking up entirely then it shows the severity.  Another symptom is itching, which I’ve noticed getting used in a few recent shows and animes.  The more anxious the character gets, the more vicious the scratching.
  4. Unlike depression, a character with anxiety can voice a source even if it’s something that isn’t a big problem.  The point is that they are worrying about whatever it is that has set them off.  It could be a clear issue like fighting with a loved one or needing to pay bills.  Yet, it can just as easily be that they have a small pain in their arm and start thinking they’re about to have a heart attack.  Could also be the wrong arm for that or it’s clear to everyone else that it stemmed from earlier physical exertion.  Again, a person with anxiety has a high chance of overreacting.
  5. Anxiety hampers the decision-making process.  Once you go past the level of thinking clearly, you can’t immediately reel it in.  So, these characters may have trouble acting under pressure.  They can lock up or focus on a small part of the problem instead of the overall issue.  Yes, the red button to save the world is in the locked safe and it’s good that you know this, but there’s also a fire-breathing dragon, lasers, and a very angry leprechaun that we have to handle first.  Anyway, these characters may be snapped back to attention in some fashion, but it isn’t easy and you need to have them work up to this.
  6. These characters don’t always have to be hyper and constantly talking when they’re really anxious.  In fact, there’s a higher chance of them turning inward because their thoughts are racing.  They are stuck in the avalanche of paranoid thoughts that they no longer realize what is going on around them.  This is not something that should be played up constantly, but it is a possibility.  Don’t use the anxiety to routinely sideline the character for the majority of scenes.
  7. You will probably be tempted to have other characters attempt to calm the anxiety one down.  Go for it, but decide on which tactics will work.  Slapping and being aggressive probably won’t help.  If anything, it will make the panic attack worse because now they’re upset that they made their friends mad.  Positivity without any meat such as inspirational sayings or mindless cheerleading will fall on deaf ears or irritate.  At least, I think they would, so feel free to ignore that one.  Personally, I think having a character softly and gently coax the anxious one out of the attack is the best thing to do if you want interaction.  Physical contact isn’t necessary, but an acknowledgement of emotions and slowly talking them out of the spiral can help even if it takes a lot of time.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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10 Responses to 7 Tips to Writing Characters with Anxiety

  1. This is a very enlightening series (and post) Charles – Thank you 😃

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  2. L. Marie says:

    Great tips, especially the caution of the first one.

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  3. L. Marie says:

    For some reason the comment posted before I finished. Anyway, I was going to add that writing on this subjects requires a certain amount of sensitivity. It’s so easy to just scratch the surface, especially if you’ve never faced this issue personally. I’m not saying a writer can’t write about something he or she has never faced. That’s where research comes in. When possible, you can talk to someone who has gone through depression (speaking as someone who has dealt with this issue) or has had a panic attack (if that person is willing to talk about the experience) in order to add more depth to characters who deal with the issue.

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    • I noticed that a lot of people brought up the research or personal experience angle. Both are definitely needed to some extent. I would add that a level of empathy is required to get the emotional aspect of these conditions too.

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  4. Good advice, Charles. I haven’t done a character with anxiety but can’t say I never will.

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  5. Another great bunch of tips. I don’t know if I would take this one on, but the split-personality thing is still on my agenda.

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  6. Is there an element of shame, also? Like if they tell people they’re having an anxiety attack it will seem like a play for attention. Or people won’t want to be friends any more because of this weird behavior.

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    • There are attempts at shame, which can take hold. From my own experience, guilt and increasing anxiety are the more potent responses. It’s really a mixed bag though. Guilt, shame, loneliness, depression, and frustration appear. Anxiety seems to be a common jumping point for other mental illnesses too.

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