The New Year is all about resolutions and the concept of “New Year, New Me.” Usually, this is a positive thing. However, these kinds of sentiments can also spiral into feelings of anxiousness and stress. We spoke with Rachel Orr of The Lily to learn more about her personal and professional experiences related to the topic of anxiety.
Q: Anxiety is a subject matter that repetitively shows up in the stories and comics that you help art direct and produce for The Lily. Can you tell us about what inspired you to start producing work and stories around anxiety?
I started writing a couple of pieces about anxiety on The Lily because about a year and a half ago I was hospitalized for high blood pressure, and it was so high they wouldn’t let me leave until we got it figured out. That was pretty scary and concerning for my age (29). I had been dealing with some chest pains, and I didn’t know what they were. I actually went to the hospital thinking it was related to medication, but they were like “No, that’s what anxiety feels like.”
To have not really dealt with anxiety for a lot of my life—and in such a physical form that was affecting me at work—I felt like I had to confront a lot of those things. So a way of coping for me was talking about it. And even though I don’t consider myself to be a writer by any means, writing about it for The Lily helped me cope, from gathering mental health resources to opening up about it in a New Year’s Resolution piece, and being able to hire other women [to focus on this topic] through comics.
I just feel like the comics that we do have this really relatable approach when people read them, and they’re like “That’s like what I feel like.” I’m one of the people on the team that pushes the mental health stuff forward a lot. And I think that’s really important, especially in elevating stories about women—and telling as many stories about anxiety and mental health as you can because it looks different for so many people.
A lot of times it’s an invisible thing that people don’t see, whether it’s panic attacks, or having massive anxiety. You just don’t see it as much. There’s not enough visibility. You just think somebody has everything going on, and you just don’t know what’s actually going on.
So I just think talking about that as much as possible is important. It’s something I really love doing as part of The Lily. It’s trying to put a focus on mental health. When we have Mental Health Awareness Week and Month, we try to focus on stories that are relatable to other people and bringing it to the forefront of conversations.
Q: What I’ve noticed is that junior designers don’t always realize they have a voice in what they are creating. That they can be both the mind and the hands in what they produce. Have you always asserted your voice and perspective as a designer?
I think it grew with me. I’ve felt strongly about a lot of issues, but it wasn’t until this happened [that I went in this direction].
I always felt like I had it together, and I just never really pictured myself as somebody suffering from these things. My anxiety had been bubbling up for some time, but it was just like: go-go-go. College was go-go-go. And after college was also go-go-go. And the feeling of being in a newsroom, and the underlying stress of that… I think it all just bubbled up into this high blood pressure situation. And it just got to the point where my body was just telling me: Rachel, you can’t ignore this anymore. And I’m telling you that you can’t, because of this.
So that bubbled up, and I realized that I needed to deal with it. And I’m still dealing with it. And I’m actually still… I just went back on my blood pressure medication because it wasn’t getting better on my own. There’s a lot of things that you can try, like self care, or you know, meditation, or breathing. There are a lot of techniques you can try, but sometimes those things don’t work either. And so now I’m on an anti-anxiety medication, I’m on blood pressure medication, and I’m still trying to manage it myself.
Having had all of that bubble up for me made me feel very strongly about trying to help other people and just helping tell other people’s stories about it.
There was a conversation between me and Neema, our deputy editor, about this, and about how anxiety looks different for so many people, so now every two weeks we have this series called the Anxiety Chronicles, where we ask the same questions every time. Like, “What does anxiety look like in a physical manifestation for you? What would you like for someone who doesn’t experience this to know?” We’ve had so many people email us and comment and say things like, “That’s exactly how my daughter’s feeling, and I didn’t really understand it before…”
I think it makes them feel like “I’m not alone.” And I know that sounds cliche, but by giving people (especially women who are reading us) a platform to tell their story and what’s going on with them… I truly feel like it makes them feel less alone. So having a small part in that is really important to me.
Q: If we are not careful, designing can feel like a one-touch kind of engagement, where we produce the work and send it out and move on to the next project. Yet, when you talk about your work, you spend a lot of time talking about genuine engagement with your readers. Can you speak more about reader engagement?
I feel like The Lily is more than just a publication. It’s a community of people that care about stories about women. The Lily is for everybody, but we specifically elevate these stories about women. And the messages and emails and all of that means the most to me.
I mean, obviously we want our stories to do well, and we just published our gift guide and I want people to read it and get ideas… but actually hearing from people is always powerful.
An example not related to mental health but that demonstrates the power of engagement and personal messages is the gift guide… I wanted to feature some smaller, lesser known businesses because I felt really passionate about them and wanted them to get more sales for the holidays, and that’s something that I have control over. I can find these women and feature them in a way that gets the word out more about what they’re doing in a way that I think is really cool, and I’ve had a couple of them email me and say like “Wow, we’ve received a much bigger boost in sales than I expected. That’s really exciting. Thank you so much for thinking of me.”
Q: The work that we do as designers—whether it’s in the diversity, inclusion and equity space or in women’s empowerment and mental health—can be heavy at the same time that it’s enlightening. We carry conversations about healing, but to get to healing we have to talk about the trauma. How do you cope and balance carrying heavy content matter for work as well as your own personal anxiety and/or mental health state of mind?
It’s definitely hard to figure out—especially with work—since I care so much about what I do but I also know that that’s a big source for my anxiety. I think so many of us are trying to figure out a balance (especially creative people). We get really invested in our work and our life and I think the line between work and life blurs so much for creatives because we can’t control our mind, and we can’t control when ideas happen… I find myself outside of work working all the time. And sometimes it’s not even conscious. I’ll just be on Instagram and like “Ahh—that’s great. I need to write that stuff down.” I just feel like the line between work and not working for creatives is especially difficult and it’s really hard to turn that creative part of your brain off. And it leaks into both sides all the time. So trying to cope and manage anxiety on top of all of that—and in relation to all of that—is difficult.
Q: Do you think being a creative adds on an extra layer of stress and anxiety?
I’ve never not been a creative so I don’t really know. I can imagine being a doctor is also stressful, and that everyone has different stresses in their jobs, but working in The Washington Post, in journalistic institutions, there’s like: the deadlines, the news cycles, and it’s exhausting. Like my friends tell me that it’s exhausting for them to keep with the news, and I’m like “Well, I’m in it.” So it’s something that I don’t even question. I just always know what’s going on. And I’m always looking to see what’s going on, or looking for ideas on like how we can portray what’s going on. There’s just so much that’s going on all the time.
And creatives have like, this double thing. We’re a creative inside this industry that’s super high stress anyway, and creatives have this tendency to have their work and their life intersect so much that it’s hard to separate, and I think we have this double stress from just that.
Q: And then there a couple of caveats within all of this… What you’re talking about is not the over-glorification of overworking in our industry, and it’s not about mending things with faux #selfcare efforts. It’s about legitimate self-nourishment of care. How do you feel when people don’t realize there are nuances and layers within the context of this conversation on self care, workaholism and overworking?
It’s been really hard for me to figure out a way to manage my stress and anxiety. So much of it spills over into my work and daily life that that’s why I’m on medication. And I know that this isn’t sustainable for me long-term. And I’d like to figure out for a way for me to figure out how to make it sustainable for me in the long-term because I feel really passionate about working in journalism and being a creative in journalism but I just haven’t figured out a way to make it sustainable for me.
And luckily I’m young, and I think I have the will and the determination to really try to figure out it and make it work, but when I go home and I try to decompress and try to do things that I know will help me decompress, those things are really hard for me to do. Sometimes there are things at work that push you into fight or flight mode, and turning that off when you leave is really difficult. So I’m struggling with, but trying really hard to manage, to being a creative—and then especially being a creative in journalism right now.
Q: In order to get the right answer, you have to ask the right question. But sometimes emerging designers don’t have enough experience, or the kind of trained mindset and awareness to realize that they have to explore a different set of questions. They’re so focused on the work that they don’t always have time (or again, that kind of self awareness) to ask if 1. the work is stressing them out and 2. what they should do about it.
I mean, I didn’t even realize it until this past year, and by then I’d been in the industry for eight years. It took eight years for this underlying stress and anxiety to bubble up, and probably even more than that because college is so stressful.
In college I started losing my hair and developed alopecia, which is an autoimmune disease, and I lost about a quarter of my hair from stress. And I remember my doctor asking like “Are you just starting out in college? Is it really stressful?” And I was like “No. I’m actually just about to graduate.” And college is super stressful. There’s all these questions about the unknown, and where you’re going to work—and are you going to work? And are you going to get a job… So yeah, I think I’ve been in this mode of fight or flight for like ten years. And your body can only do that for so long until it bubbles up into what happened to me. So I’m trying… I think being aware is helpful, especially for younger emerging designers. But it’s hard, because when you’re in it, you don’t even realize you’re in it. You’re like—also so excited, and in it. You’re just wanting to do the best you can to do your best work. You feel like you have to do all the things. And it’s just hard to manage that.
Q: It’s like: I want to prove I have this hustle, but this hustle is killing me.
I know—yes, exactly! I used to have so many side hustles, and I’ve had to dial back on them and really be like: okay, if this isn’t sustainable for me and it’s not going to do anything for my mental health… and if I’m not going anything outside of work right now, that’s okay. Like maybe it’s okay for me to come home and make dinner and go to yoga and go to bed.
Q: What I’ve noticed from your Instagram stories and posts is that you’re really working more of that into your routine, even when you’re traveling.
Yeah. I’ve been trying really hard to do that—to feel like I don’t have to do all the things when I’m on vacation. Like, I can also do things that I normally do and bring those self care routines that I have at home that really keep me in check and bring those on trips with me. It’s been helpful, but again it’s hard to put a lot of these things into practice. And a lot of these things sound cliche and a lot of times they sound easy in practice but they’re really hard. I’ve just been trying really hard to pay attention to what nourishes me and like my brain and body. When I was trying to do so many things and feeling super stressed (which I mean, I’m still dealing with), I would definitely not prioritize my health of my body and my brain, but I’m trying really hard to do those things now because that’s the only way to get to keep doing the things that you actually want to be doing.
It’s like “Oh I haven’t eaten all day.” That’s not good. You have to take care of yourself. And they say that: you have to put on your breathing mask before you put on somebody else’s. They tell you that on airplanes but it’s true. We have to make sure we’re in good shape in order to do good for the greater good, whether that’s your job or your family or whatever it is.
Q: We learn about InDesign, After Effects, Sketch, etc. in school, but no one teaches us the coursework of life. I think what you’re talking about is a general universal experience that many creatives share. You can climb and do well career-wise as an emerging designer and still encounter anxiety and stress. So if you could rewrite the curriculum, what are some of the big lessons that you would want to see worked in to the course work?
I’ve actually thought about this a lot, and I think it actually starts a lot earlier than college. I actually have a big issue with how the school system is in general. I don’t think that we should be focusing on math skills in like second grade. I think we should be focusing on conversations like consent. And conversations on mental health. And kids who feel anger or sadness… Kids act out because they feel emotions that adults feel because they’re human beings, and they don’t know what to do with those emotions. And I feel like that’s something that’s just not talked about enough and integrated enough into our curriculums. And instead we’re focused on test scores and learning all this math. And like: I don’t need to know how to divide in second grade. I need to know how to deal with sadness and anger and those types of things. So I think: as a society, we’re set up a little bit not to fail, but I think our priorities are just a little messed up in those terms.
And I did take a stress management in college, but that even felt hard for me to justify taking.
Q: When it’s an elective, and not a fundamental course priority.
Yes. Because it’s like “Oh I actually need to be taking a web design class or something else. I don’t really need this.”
And I don’t really know a solution to that. I wish that the way that we prioritize mental health was integrated more into the curriculum from the get-go. It’s such a choice [as opposed to a mandatory subject matter]. It’s also not available to a lot of people. A lot of people don’t have access to mental health care and therapy. Therapy’s expensive, and I can’t even afford to go to therapy, and if I can’t even afford to go to therapy, I feel like a lot of people can’t. It’s just something that a lot of people don’t have access to or even have time to even think about because they are working a job to pay for their life. So I just think there’s a lot of things that are wrong with the system. It’s really hard to figure it out. I think we’re all just trying to figure it out.
Q: So what is self care really?
I think it’s figuring out for you: what can nourish your mind and body? And that’s something that can mean something different for everyone. For someone it can literally mean going outside once a day and getting fresh air. It can mean eating something that you really want to eat and not having a bunch of negative self-talk around it. It can really mean anything, and I think the way that people are talking about it now… I hope it changes. I think some people have helped it change, but I think just normalizing it more and talking about it more will help, which is why I’m talking about it now. It’s something that I feel I can do in order to make it more normal and not shy away from things like, “Oh I had a panic attack,” or like, “Oh I’m dealing with anxiety and I’m not sure where it’s from… like trying not to compare myself to other people who are doing the same job but seem to be doing a better job and not suffering from something, and ‘How can she do that much work and not suffer anxiety?'” You know? I think it’s important to talk about it and realize that we’re all living our own separate paths and we don’t understand what everyone else is going through.
Q: What is your definition of normalization?
I guess just talking about it and trying to be honest with more people about it. I feel like in a lot of other industries there’s a lot of glorification [and thus normalization] of overworking. It’s like this weird competition of working hard–which I don’t know why we’re in because we’re all going to die anyway but that’s another whole thing…
Q: We’re like trying to die faster in this metaphorical situation [laughs].
Yeah. It’s weird. I think about that though. Like, I’ve had a coworker say “I feel bad that I don’t work outside of work,” and I’m like “You should not feel bad about that! We should all try to set better boundaries.” So I just think being honest with yourself and other people is important.
When I was experiencing anxiety that was so bad that I had to go to the hospital, I talked to my boss and told her what was going on. I had to take a week off of work. I like couldn’t. I just had to really figure it out what was going on. I had to figure out if this was something I could really continue doing at my job. So yeah, I think normalization [and creating a new normal around things like anxiety in the workplace] is just talking about it and being honest with yourself and other people about what’s going on with you. And I hope that it doesn’t affect me negatively at work, but I think that everybody deals with this, and I think that it’s important and we can’t just ignore it.
Q: Based on our conversation, your boss (Amy) has been really supportive of you. What does it mean to have a supportive team and boss within this context?—and what does that support look and feel like?
I’m really lucky to be on a team that’s really small with people who I consider to be really good friends. I have always been this way, where I feel like while we can’t control who is on our teams, the more we get to know people as people and friends, the more we hold each other accountable for work because you don’t want to screw over someone who is a friend. Not only is the team dynamic better, everybody trusts each other more, and everybody just works better. I have always tried to foster this friendship with people I work with.
I was lucky to be friends with my boss long before she was my boss, so I’m definitely in a unique situation where I consider everyone who I work closely with a friend of mine. I definitely feel that I am in a space where I can talk about those things and they’re not going to think differently or negatively of me, or that I can’t do my job. So mainly, when I talk about stuff like that, they’ll listen or offer advice.
We also do something in our meetings that my boss Amy implemented when we started The Lily, which I think is really important, which is that at the beginning of every meeting, we talk about one thing that excites us and something we’re stressed about. It just gets it all on the table about what we’re stressed about, and that’s like a time in the meeting where no one comments on it. We just say it and even if it’s something we’re stressed out about because of somebody else or because deadlines—usually it’s time and we don’t have enough time—but I think that just gets it all out there from the get-go, and everybody has their time to express that. Having the ability and time and space to express that is important. It’s normalizing stress in a good way—it’s a natural part of our work experience.
This was an extended discussion from our previous Emerging Series interview with Rachel.