Anxiety is a common emotion experienced by creative people and while some of the symptoms may be similar from one person to the next, how and when people experience anxiety differs widely.
Sometimes anxiety is experienced as a reaction to our surrounding environment. Something –negative or with negative connotations- happens in our environment, we perceive it as a threat to our current or future self and as a way to protect and defend ourselves we become anxious. This process is a swift one, oftentimes unconscious and almost never leaving room for analysis, explanation, or to challenge. This type of anxiety manifests itself in the present moment and can last for minutes or days.
Another type of anxiety is a more constant one that we carry around throughout our lives, many times, since childhood. In this context anxiety has been used as a defense mechanism from a very young age. Children have limited experience and typically have little insight into how to deal with perceived threats or how to solve problems they are faced with. Anxiety becomes then a viable solution to dealing with problems despite its lack of effectiveness. Children who grow up using anxiety to defend themselves from the issues they encounter typically continue to do so well into adulthood, indiscriminately of it healthiness or efficacy. Most adults that have a childhood history of anxiety and continue struggling with it throughout life oftentimes identify themselves as anxious, cite anxiety as an issue they struggle with, yet the idea of working through their anxiety and using anxiety to get relief is often terrifying and seldom considered.
A certain amount of anxiety –anxiety baseline- is healthy in human beings, although when anxiety levels increase to a point where they interfere with day to day functioning, that’s when there is a problem.
Many times creative people who struggle with anxiety experience a sense of paralysis, creative block, and even depression particularly right before they engage in creative endeavors. Anxiety becomes the main culprit, the thing to blame for feeling stuck, an obstacle to the act of creativity.
What if it doesn’t have to be so? What if you were able to use your anxiety as part of the creative process?
Anxiety can be a double edged sword: it can either help you move forward or keep you stuck and paralyzed. Creativity and anxiety share a commonality: possibility. When we create we push the boundaries of the norm, of what’s acceptable, we experiment with ideas and dismantle the boxes imposed by family and society in order to reach the realm of possibility. Similarly, anxiety is the reaction some of us experience in the face of potentiality and possibility. We become anxious when we know little or nothing about something, as a way to defend ourselves in the face of the big unknown. Creativity is brought forth by embracing the unknown. This is the crucial point when you are presented with the opportunity to choose: remain “protected” by your anxiety and stay stuck, plunge into the unknown, or use anxiety as transportation to your creative place.
It has been my experience in working with anxious and talented artists and creative people to ignore their feelings and either remain stuck or create from a place of fear. The idea of using anxiety to explore a new facet of themselves and expand their creative potential is unthinkable and oftentimes even more anxiety producing.
What would be the worst thing that would happen to you if you try to exploit your anxiety when you’re engaging in creative endeavor? What would you lose? If you take the time to answer these questions, you might be surprised by how irrational some of these fears are, or how broad and vague your arguments are.
When you feel particularly anxious start creating by turning inwards; use whatever media you prefer ( writing, painting, music composition, etc) to bring your anxiety forth to explore it for what it is and help move it from the abstract into concreteness. Use your experience of anxiety to connect with yourself and the people exposed to your work. Art becomes meaningful when it’s relatable and if there is one emotion that people in general are familiar with, it is anxiety. Use your anxiety to uncover the endless possibilities that your creative side requires to expand and move forward.
Image credit: Porsche Brosseau, Creative Commons.