On the surface, you project an image that you know exactly what you’re doing. But inside your head, it’s a different story.
You often can’t focus or function due to an underlying sense of unease, fear, dread or panic. Your heart pounds, you find it difficult to breathe, and everything feels overwhelming.
If that’s you, then rest assured: you are not alone.
It’s common for graphic designers to suffer from anxiety. After all, this is a profession in which your work is being constantly judged, with an inevitable element of subjectivity (unlike many other professions, there is no “right” answer or correct way of doing things). This can lead to feelings of panic based on a lack of confidence, imposter syndrome, and job insecurity.
And we’re not just talking about new entries to the business, either. Designers at all stages of their career, from juniors to seniors, and even CEOs, can suffer from anxiety. And in extreme cases, it can lead to sickness and hospitalisation.
That’s the bad news. The good news is, there are ways of coping and alleviating anxiety, and making sure you control it, rather than it controlling you. Even more good news, the way mental health is being treated in the workplace is changing—founder of Never Not Creative, Andy Wright, has recently introduced the first set of mental health minimum standards for the industry, Mentally Healthy. Over 20 companies, including Facebook, Fjord and Havas, have already committed to supporting their employees. Read on, and we’ll give an overview of some of the most common strategies you can follow.
One of the most common problems with anxiety is when you don’t know what you’re specifically anxious about: it’s more a general sense of dread and fear. Or, you might know the reasons for the anxiety, but whenever you try to think them through, your thoughts get jumbled up in your head and you can’t make sense of them.
If this applies to you, then try journaling. If you’ve not heard the term, it basically means: write down what’s on your mind, and what’s troubling you.
It’s helpful to have a single notebook to record all these thoughts and to do so on a regular basis. How you organise your journal is up to you: you might, for example, want to commit to writing a daily entry, to set daily and weekly goals, and so on. You can even buy prepared journals such as I am here now or Mindjournal, for added guidance through the journalling process.
Either way, journaling can be an excellent way to make sense of your thoughts, what’s causing your anxiety, and what things might help alleviate it. Learn more about journaling here.
Talking about your thoughts and feelings with a supportive person is a tried-and-tested way to manage stress and anxiety, while bottling things up will almost certainly lead to the reverse.
Family and friends are an obvious source of support. They can help by having an understanding of the difficulties you’re facing, and you should expect the same support they’d provide if you had a physical illness or injury.
That said, don’t assume that only friends and family qualify as supportive people. While it’s natural to think you shouldn’t show “weakness” in front of your tutor or employer, the opposite is actually true.
The design industry, specifically, is generally a very nurturing and supportive environment, and most of your superiors will probably have been through similar experiences to you at one time or other. So reach out, be honest, and you’ll probably be surprised how open, non-judgemental and helpful colleagues and managers will be.
One of the most common causes of anxiety is imposter syndrome, the idea that you’re somehow hiding your “lack of talent”, and that sooner or later, you’ll be “found out”.
This is of course nonsense. We’re all learning, improving and growing throughout our careers, and few designers are ever totally satisfied with their work. But such logic often goes out the window when you see an amazing project on a design blog, Instagram or Behance. Instead of being inspired by the work, a feeling of dread often takes over, convincing us that “we’ll never make anything that good” and “we’re just not good enough”.
It happens to all of us, however experienced we are. But what you need to remember is that designers only ever showcase their best stuff, and we rarely see their worst. That finished version is probably the 100th iteration of something they struggled for ages to get right, they may have had a lot of help from others, and their first draft was probably embarrassingly bad. Plus, there are probably countless previous projects where they never even put the final version online, because they just weren’t that good.
All of which is okay, because that’s how the design process works.
What’s important to understand is that when you fail, and fail, and fail again, that doesn’t make you an imposter. It makes you one of us.
Read more of our tips on how to beat anxiety.
We often like to think of the “physical” and “mental” aspects of our being as two separate things. But in reality, the mind and the body are very much connected. And so the best way of healing the former is to pay more attention to looking after the latter.
Probably the most important thing you can do is to practice good sleep habits.
You should be aiming for between seven and nine hours of sleep a night. Sleeping less than that causes numerous physical and mental problems, and is a major cause of anxiety, stress, bad memory and poor concentration.
That doesn’t mean, however, that you can just work solidly until bedtime and then pass out. You also need to make time for rest and relaxation. If you find it hard to relax after a hard day’s work, any number of activities can help, including meditation, massage, sitting in nature, and listening to soft music. Exercise can also serve as a natural and healthy form of stress relief, whether that’s running, swimming, walking, dancing, stretching, or numerous other activities.
Still struggling to unwind? Then it’s probably a sign you need to cut down on stimulants, whether that’s alcohol, coffee, energy drinks, vaping, or whatever. And be aware that stimulants don’t only come in chemical form. Compulsive Netflix bingeing or hours of staring at TikTok videos aren’t good for your health and stress levels either.
Finally, improving your diet may also have a big impact on your levels of anxiety. When your body is poorly fed, stress takes an even greater toll on your health, so good nutrition is an important stress management tool.
If you’ve tried all these approaches but are still suffering from underlying anxiety, then don’t give up and suffer in silence. It’s time to take the next step and make an appointment to see your doctor and discuss what’s going on.
There may be an underlying health issue behind your anxiety, or a deep-rooted psychological issue, or a combination of both.
Either way, be open and honest with your doctor and they should be able to refer you to the appropriate specialist.
Please be aware that this is only advice and we are not mental health professionals. If you need further help or immediate assistance, please contact the appropriate helplines in your country:
Of course, this isn’t the be-all and end-all of how to cope with anxiety and other mental health issues but simply some guidance in how to start coping and alleviating anxiety. Remember, so many of us been there and we’re all in it together. Here’s some other great articles for tackling that beast on every designer’s back, imposter syndrome from Shillington Melbourne graduate Lauren Koste and former part-time Sydney teacher Fiona Yap.