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Anxiety in Grant Writing: Tactics to Overcome Performance Anxiety

Whether you’ve been grant writing for decades or are a first timer, the emotions that come with completing grant applications can be pretty tumultuous. Although experience is always a great teacher, many organizations do not have the resources to ‘test out’ or practice their grant writing skills.

The reality is that a lot can hinge on whether or not funding is secured (i.e., salaries, operational costs, program expenses, etc.). For those of us fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to be put in the author’s chair, the pressure to get it done right and to be successful in our efforts can be down-right crippling at times.

Here are five helpful tactics for authors experiencing anxiety:

1. Normalize Performance Anxiety

Generally, anxiety is part of modern work life, whether you work as a teacher, brain surgeon, artist or stay-at-home parent. No matter what sort of work we do, most of us experience heightened emotions of fear or worry when put under pressure. Fear and anxiety are unfortunate, sometimes debilitating sensations, that human beings experience in day to day life (think: spiders, heights, public speaking, etc.).

First, it is normal to feel these emotions since anxiety, worry, and fear are rooted in our survival instincts, induced “by a threat to well-being or survival, either actual or potential” (Steimer, 2002).

For grant writing specifically, it is okay and normal to feel anxious or fearful of not being successful. Again, sometimes a lot is on the line. Doing your best to go beyond the sensation of fear by realizing where it is truly coming from will help in mitigating the negative effects of it. “I have anxiety in this application because I want my organization to continue doing the work we ought to be” is actually a pretty reasonable reason to be concerned.

Performance anxiety can impair cognitive clarity, leading to writers’ block, and even more stifling physiological effects like sweating, shaking and other symptoms of an overactive nervous system (Angelidis et al, 2019). In everyday life, we refer to this as “performance anxiety,” but a different, more appropriate way to think about it might be better said as “fear of failure” and the burning desire to do well and succeed.

However, if anxiety becomes unmanageable, seeking resources within or outside of the workplace is a healthy next step.

2. Compartmentalize and Organize Tasks

Usually in grant applications there are a lot of moving parts. Devising a roadmap that demonstrates how each smaller step gradually meets the bigger goal helps make the daunting, longer process more manageable.

A lot can hinge on grant approval such as salaried positions, client programs, or just the ability to keep the lights on. But if you notice anxiety is centering on some key issue (lack of time, lack of organization, lack of support), this can actually be quite helpful.

Acknowledging and understanding where the fear is coming from helps with narrowing in on one problem, rather than getting lost in a large maze that leaves one feeling pretty helpless. When we are able to compartmentalize the process into smaller steps, anxiety inducing stress from big picture stuff can be mitigated, or at least put into context. After contemplating and pinpointing where the fear or anxiety is coming from (i.e., short timeline or missing information), it’s possible to attend to the specific issues. It can also lend to important learning lessons that can be applied in the future.

3. Reflect on your Process

As you embark on the grant process, keep notes on how the process is going. If, for example, you notice you are lacking critical information to complete a grant, make special note of this. As the old saying goes “practice makes perfect” but ONLY if the lessons to be learned from practice are realized.

There are a few simple reflection questions that help to narrow down where improvement and time saving tactics can be applied.

What worked well, what didn’t work out so well, and what are some strategies you could implement to avoid those problems in the future? Were you organized in your process or would it be helpful to have corresponding documentation, data and information stored in a more accessible fashion? Did you have support? If not, how will you fill those gaps or needs?

4. Expect Rejection

Sad to say, but true. Grants are a competition and not everyone wins first place. Generally speaking, there is no second or third place either. So although it feels devastating, keep in mind that some funders receive hundreds or even thousands of applications per grant cycle. It may have less to do with your specific grant, but more about what the funder is looking for and what proposal best suits their organizational mandate at that time.

While there is no easy way around grappling with rejection, keep in mind that opportunities exist even when rejected. Most importantly, don’t take it personally! There is no way around it. Rejection can feel pretty brutal. It can also have serious consequences. But it WILL happen. Although the rejection may feel it was about you, it wasn’t.

There are a lot of resources on the internet that provide advice and “how-to” guides for grants. Additionally, books, articles, blogs, videos, and presentations can help in self-educating that comes with grant and ghost-writing gigs.

Beyond your own research, seek advice from colleagues, friends, or family members who have experience in grant applications. Additionally, ask for help in the editing process. When we read the same document over and over, especially when it is our own work, sometimes that carefully articulated story becomes all but a big blur. Fresh eyes are always a best-bet resource in noticing what you can easily overlook.

Angelidis, A et al. (2019). I’m going to fail! Acute cognitive performance anxiety increase threat- interference and impairs WM performance. PLOSONE, Feb 2019.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0210824

Steimer T. (2002). The biology of fear- and anxiety-related behaviors. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 4(3), 231–249.

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