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Freelancing with anxiety: how I cope
How are you feeling? This month we're talking mental health and travel...
How are you? No, really, how are you feeling? We’re asking this because it’s October — it’s an exceptionally beautiful time of year here in the UK, but it is also exceptionally difficult for many: the clocks go back, darkness descends earlier than usual each day, and mornings are more dreary than they have been for months. Black Dog season is upon us, so we want to talk about mental health in travel writing.
All four of October’s newsletters will be free for all this month while we face the mental and emotional challenges this job presents, with advice from career coaches and psychologists on coping better with the world we work in. We hope you find some solace in knowing you’re not alone, no matter what you’re dealing with.
Paid subscribers will get the benefit of another AMA — Ask Me Anything — this time with Lisa Minot, Head of Travel at The Sun newspaper. She’ll be logging on to answer queries on 7 October and we’ll send an email that morning where you can post those burning questions, so subscribe now if you’re not already a paid member.
For now, though, here’s Steph with some real talk.
Have you ever had a panic attack?
For me, they start with a sinking feeling in my stomach. I realise the pit of my stomach has turned to ice, or perhaps it’s just a single sliver that’s slipping from my stomach and down into my bowels. As it does, my head begins to fog and I feel an overwhelming urge to pull myself into a ball or lie on the floor, anything to protect me from the imminent collapse of my knees.
After a few minutes, it subsides. But my head remains cloudy and my memory of what has just happened in those crucial but short few minutes dissipates as quickly as the panic attack arrived.
A few months ago, panic attacks became a part of my life. It was a terrifying new addition to who I have always thought myself to be: unflappable, resilient and capable of facing every new challenge. But the pandemic, as I’m sure it did to you, had already left its profound mark, even if I hadn’t recognised it yet: like most of us in the travel sphere, I’d been stripped of my income and left scrabbling for work and a place to live.
Although work is bountiful and rewarding once again, the scars from that period cut deep. And the panic attacks, and the subsequent diagnosis with generalised anxiety disorder, have made me realise how stressed life has made me — and how the job I’m so proud of has left me feeling anxious and, on bad days, unable to face the world.
Becoming someone who faces panic attacks has forced me to confront how challenging our profession can be, how alone it’s possible to feel when you’re too mentally unwell to meet a deadline and how scary facing any sort of mental health issue can feel when your entire income relies on your ability to put your brain to paper and write something that makes sense.
While I’ve taken a course of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and feel capable enough in myself to face the world again, sadly I’ve realised that a lot of the expectations of us in this industry are what made me ill. We’re constantly expected to be on. We’re constantly expected to be available for a commission or a trip or an event. Unpredictability and being unable to plan our lives are the central tenets of life as a travel journalist. Stability, both financial and physical, constantly feels out of reach. Adaptability and resilience are our bread and butter.
What we give for having such an enviably rewarding career is broken time without loved ones, jet lag, a disrupted routine of health and sleep and the constant urge to do more, earn better, be more visible and more successful.
It seems we’re not alone. The pandemic has left a terrible impact on the mental health of freelancers across professions. According to research by ipse, the association for freelancers and the self-employed, over half of freelancers said their mental health had been impacted by the pandemic and I suspect that the return to “normality” has left many of us struggling to resume the pace of life as we had known it before.
But there are ways to manage how we’re affected by the more challenging aspects of a career as a freelance journalist and here are some of the things I’ve learned on my journey to manage panic attacks and anxiety — hopefully some of them will work for you, too.
Deal with your phone addiction
The most impactful change I made to my life since I started having anxiety attacks was reading How to Break Up With Your Phone. This book by award-winning science journalist Catherine Price focuses on what lies at the heart of much of our daily stress: our mobile phones. The book takes you through the science of phone addiction and how — in what makes sobering reading — these seemingly innocuous devices are damaging us both mentally and socially. What follows is a day-to-day guide to weaning yourself off of your phone.
Forcing myself to set time limits on my interactions with social media and the news, and remove notifications from these apps and my inbox has changed my relationship with three of the biggest stressors in my life — and helped reduce my anxiety levels.
Not being present on social media has been a struggle as I feel I should be tweeting or posting Instagram photos of my trips (indeed, PRs and editors now seem to expect that we’ll do this while travelling). However, I’ve taken the decision to largely remove myself from social media; instead, I pay a virtual assistant to schedule content on platforms that are most important for my blog. It’s not the perfect solution but is one that’s saving me from doom scrolling and hours spent on Twitter.
I’ve been strict on never having my mobile phone in the bedroom for years — after all, the impact of your screen’s blue light on your melatonin production has been widely proven — but have enforced this with my boyfriend too. No, you don’t need to check your emails before bed or first thing in the morning, and nothing kills intimacy — or just the sense that you’re listening to each other — more than checking your phone in the bedroom. Using my Garmin watch or an old-fashioned alarm clock has removed the argument for either of us having a phone where we sleep, anyway.
A final takeaway from this book is meditation, an activity I’ve tried to work at least ten minutes of into my morning routine. Headspace is a paid tool (with a free trial) that has a beginner’s guide to meditation, alongside music designed to help you focus, take a break from work, or sleep. All have helped me to step back and shut out the stressors of every day and the constant whir of my brain — well, for a few minutes of each day, at least.
Introduce steps to manage your work/life balance
No, this doesn’t have to be an oxymoron within the travel media. A work/life balance is possible. And a lot of the time, it comes from implementing the above and learning how to say no. I recently turned down a dream job because it would have meant going from two, nearly back-to-back 2.5-week press trips onto a further five weeks on the road.
And you know what? The world didn’t end. By explaining politely why I couldn’t take the commission, I don’t think I’ve blacklisted myself or burned any bridges. What I’ve done is given myself the breathing space that I need to build up my businesses and invest in myself as a writer but also as someone who wants to lounge on her sofa in her pyjamas every now and then and spend quality time with her family and friends — without feeling a slave to her desk or her work.
Dr Audrey Tang, a chartered psychologist and author, agrees with my approach. “Have an awareness of the outlets that you wish to be ‘available for’,” she says. “That way you at least do not burn out writing for the ones who do not bring you pleasure nor reward, and you have energy stored for the one-hour turnaround that an outlet you are available might require.” Deciding which editors you enjoy working with and which types of commissions feed your creativity rather than sapping it, can leave you feeling happier and far less anxious.
Get help from a professional
When the panic attacks first started, I went straight to my doctor, whose immediate solution was a prescription of diazepam. While I will never judge anyone for using medication to manage their mental health, I didn’t believe this to be the right solution for me and, instead, on the advice of a friend, I self-referred for a course of cognitive behavioural therapy with my local mental health services.
It’s easy enough to do. In the UK, you can self-refer through the NHS psychological therapies service (IAPT) and you should receive a call back within a couple of days. I found the waiting time to start a course of CBT to be only a couple of weeks, although this will vary according to where you live.
Speak to others
It’s amazing how many other people in our industry have struggled with anxiety, but you wouldn’t know it unless you asked. Being more open about my own mental health recently has meant other colleagues and friends have opened up too and reassured me that I’m not alone in how I’m feeling.
What’s more, learning that even the most successful journalists I know also struggle from the same feelings of inadequacy and imposter syndrome has reminded me that we all face the exact same self-deprecating thoughts, regardless of our experiences.
Outsource if you can
I’m 99% sure that my own struggles with anxiety stem from feelings of imposter syndrome: editors and my industry colleagues are one day going to realise I don’t know what the hell I’m doing and my cover will be blown. The amount of pressure I put on myself to run various different businesses, including this newsletter, is a direct consequence of this imposter syndrome and has left me feeling burnt out. Hiring a couple of virtual assistants to manage key parts of my business (including social media — see above) has been a game changer when it comes to stress and mental health.
Virtual assistants can be surprisingly affordable and can help combat those tasks that give you the most anxiety, whether it’s posting to your social media accounts, conducting research for an upcoming piece you’re writing or cleaning up the dumpster fire that is your inbox. Working with an assistant does take some training and a lot of trust, but the stress relief benefits can be enormous.
Deal with your imposter syndrome
Imposter syndrome can be a heavy weight to bear, particularly as social media can make us feel like every other member of the industry is experiencing unbridled success, while we struggle to make ends meet. Dr Tang cautions that imposter syndrome can “lead to a vicious cycle where the individual, as if in a hamster wheel, simply keeps working to achieve more and more without feeling the actual satisfaction, pride or success in what they have done.”
Facing down my imposter syndrome is still a work in progress. However, Dr Tang suggests that you can manage your anxiety at others’ perceived success by “reframing with gratitude the anxiety you feel towards someone's success.” Saying to yourself “‘I’m grateful I got to see x’s happiness’ and then using that feeling of gratitude to inspire you to move towards your goal,” can have far more positive outcomes.
Tweet of the week
This thread is equal parts hilarious and depressing. Enjoy!
Who to follow
Sam Langlois takes truly captivating pictures of birds, including this one which Lottie has on her living room wall. Go follow his work.
There’s lots of debate going on around this piece by Thomas Swick, which says most travel journalism is boring. I (Lottie) am not inclined to disagree — I find a lot of travel writing dull — but Swick’s reference to Chatwin and Theroux shows us he’d rather a travel media packed with pieces by privileged white men who can stump up for their own months-long adventures on the road than a more diverse group of voices with differing experiences who can bring equally entertaining prose to our newspaper pages.
This piece in The Times (paywall) by Chris Haslam is a cutting take-down of the luxury travel market — and its consumers — in relation to its climate commitments (or lack thereof). Excellent to see a no-holds-barred slight at the industry’s failings, though it’ll be interesting to see if any of this is reflected in further Times Travel coverage.
In better news, Virgin Atlantic has relaxed its uniform rules to allow anyone to wear skirts or suits as they please, making their uniform totally inclusive for any gender identity or expression. We love this move.
You’ll need a TravMedia account to read this one: Tayla Gentle has been appointed editor of Get Lost magazine in Australia. Details of her email in the piece; we don’t yet know if she’s accepting pitches.
This was the first edition of our October mental health series. We’re making this month free for all subscribers because we want to show all travel writers suffering with mental health difficulties that they’re not alone. Want to support us? Subscribe now from just £5/month.