Written by Ami Mattison
Anxiety can be debilitating and immobilizing, especially for artists. When anxiety strikes it can disconnect us from our desires and passions, which fuel our creativity. Without that fuel, our creative impulses can become chaotic and overwhelming, or worse they can shrivel up and die.
I know a lot about anxiety. After decades of medical misdiagnosis, I was finally diagnosed, a little over a year ago, with bipolar disorder. Anxiety is a primary symptom of my mental illness.
And I’m not talking about a little stress here. No, I suffer from the kind of anxiety that is often extremely debilitating and immobilizing and that keeps me spiraling in nervousness, fear, despair, and even shame.
For me, the worst part of anxiety is how it can keep me from writing and from experiencing and utilizing my creativity.
However, because I’ve struggled with anxiety throughout my writing career, I’ve slowly learned ways to combat its debilitating symptoms and to transform it from a personal liability into a creative asset.
What is Anxiety?
Everyone struggles with anxiety from time to time. When we need or want to do something that makes us nervous, scares us, or is particularly challenging, anxiety is a natural reaction. For instance, if you’re shy, then reading your poetry in public may cause you anxiety. Or if you’re pressed for time on a publication deadline, then anxiety is a natural response.
What characterizes anxiety as a disorder, as opposed to a natural reaction to stress, is its persistence, its intensity, and the way it may be disproportionate to the task at hand. For instance, everyday activities associated with my life and my work can cause me anxiety—going to the grocery store, keeping an appointment, or having to do a spoken word gig I’ve committed to.
Coping with anxiety is especially difficult because it’s actually a very complex emotion. Anxiety is a combination of sadness, fear, and anger.
But in the simplest sense, anxiety is energy—excessive energy, but energy nonetheless.
Transforming Anxiety into Creativity
Because anxiety is energy, the key to transforming it into creativity is to learn to harness it. Yet, how do we rein in our anxiety so we might write or create art?
Here are some suggestions that help me transform anxious energy into creativity:
- Take care of your basic needs. First, it’s important to simply take care of your basic physical and emotional needs. This suggestion may seem obvious, but when in the throes of anxiety, I often forget that I haven’t eaten for the day or that I’m actually running on very little sleep. And it’s important to focus on doing simple activities, like taking a shower, taking a walk, or relaxing.
- Engage in creative procrastination. If you’ve taken care of your basic needs and you still don’t feel ready to engage your artistic work, then I suggest creative procrastination. In my opinion, procrastination has a bad rap. But I believe that it’s really a significant way to ease the pressure we may feel and to prime the creative pump. Everyone has their favorite ways to procrastinate, but what I suggest is to do something that is likely to stimulate your creative brain, like going to the library and reading some great literature or going to the museum and looking at great art. Often, once I’ve engaged in some creative procrastination, then my anxiety is more manageable and I feel ready and inspired to write.
- Free write. Free writing lets you transfer all your anxious thoughts from your brain to the page. When done in a specific manner, it becomes a way to dump your worries and park them elsewhere. The best way to free write is to set a timer for 5-10 minutes. Start writing and keep writing without lifting your pen or hand from the page. Don’t pause; rather, keep writing whatever thoughts come to you. Don’t edit by crossing out words; don’t worry about grammar or misspellings. Simply keep writing until the time is up. The key to free writing is to not judge what you write. In fact, you should expect inane, boring, trite, and otherwise terrible writing. Also, try to avoid writing out negative thoughts about yourself. If you start writing negative thoughts, then simply stop and park that thought elsewhere. It’s not simply unhelpful to put yourself down when you’re anxious; it’s actually more damaging. So, if you’re really struggling with negative thoughts then I suggest that you stop free writing and go back to my first suggestion to take care of yourself and your basic needs. But if you can avoid negative thoughts, then free writing is a great way to alleviate anxiety and to get those creative ideas flowing.
- Engage in creative play. If you’re a regular reader of my blog, then you know I value “play” as an artistic practice. The key to artistic play is to focus on creative activities or ones that nurture your creative spirit. For instance, in my mind, zoning out in front of the TV, your computer, or a video game isn’t really playing. In my opinion and my experience, these are ways to disengage from life and from yourself, which is a perfectly fine choice if that’s what you need. But there are so many ways to engage in creative play. If you really love watching movies, for instance, then get out of the house and go to a movie theatre. Creative play can alleviate the anxiety we feel about engaging in some “serious” way with our art and opens us to imaginative playfulness.
- Open yourself to creative possibility. When you’re anxious, being positive and believing in creative possibilities are difficult, but doable. Try writing out your artistic dreams. If you could live any artistic life you wanted, then what would that life look like? Or write out your “perfect” day. If there were no limits on what kind of day you could have, then what activities would you engage in? The key to this suggestion is to focus on what you can do creatively rather than on what you can’t do.
- Get spiritual. If you’re a spiritual person, then it’s natural to turn to your spirituality in times of need. One thing I do when I’m really anxious is to write out my prayers. This allows me to use my creative skills in a spiritual way. Also, I use a Zen writing practice that I’ve developed for myself in order to simultaneously ease my emotional pain and nurture my creativity. Whatever your spirituality may be, then think of creative ways to engage it. By doing so, your anxiety may lessen enough to let your creativity expand.
- Nurture your creative self-esteem. By this suggestion, I mean nurture some faith in yourself, in the creative process, and in your own talent, skills, and experiences. When I get anxious, I often forget that I’m a capable and successful artist. So remember who you are as an artist by writing out your accomplishments or focus on what you do best. Having some faith in yourself and flexing your creative self-esteem can alleviate anxiety and open up the possibility for creativity.
These are simply a few suggestions for creatively harnessing and reining in your anxiety. If you struggle with anxiety on a regular basis, then I’m sure you can think of even more activities.
It’s possible to transform your anxiety from a personal liability into a creative asset. It just requires a bit of diligence and a lot of faith—faith in yourself, your skills, your creativity and your experience as an artist.
How do you transform your anxiety into creativity?
Culled from Ami Mattison‘s blog