Editor’s note: The following article is the first part of an A-Z series on issues related to creative blocks. This month we explore the topic of anxiety.
What is the connection between anxiety and creativity?
Anxiety. The word itself creates negative connotations and emotions: worry, racing thoughts, rapid heartbeat, and stress. The idea of feeling anxious when trying to create seems like trying to handle two impossibly demanding tasks at the same time. However, there is something unique about the way anxiety comes into play when working through a creative block. We will look at three ways anxiety relates to creativity as creating, resulting from, and even relieving the feeling of being stuck creatively. By understanding these three concepts through examples, we will be able to successfully minimize negative effects and maximize creative potential.
- Anxiety as a cause of creative blocks: John is a PhD student working on his dissertation. He has been writing and rewriting the same passages but feels like his argument “makes no sense” and that he is not getting his point across. He has a vague concept of what innovative idea he is trying to express, but when it comes to putting it into words he just stares at the screen. John was in a car accident a few months ago. He was seriously injured and often thinks about “what could have happened.” When he tries to concentrate on his creative work, he notices physical symptoms of anxiety such as shakiness, heart palpitations, and the feeling that he is “crawling out of his skin.” Coming up with new complex ideas and putting them into words seems impossible. In this case, anxiety, which is linked to a traumatic life experience, is the reason why John cannot seem to give his creative work the necessary time and mental effort it requires.
- Anxiety as a result of creative blocks: Helen is a choreographer for a big dance company. She has been asked to create a piece and is explicitly asked to come up with something impressive and original. Her previous piece received mediocre reviews, causing her to feel insecure about her abilities. Being asked to impress and to be innovative has triggered Helen’s self-doubt, and she finds herself putting off the creative process. Every time she sets time aside to brainstorm ideas and to begin choreographing, she feels overwhelmed by an inner critic telling her that she can’t do it. As a response to this threatening thought, she avoids the challenging task and occupies her time with other activities. This results in feelings of anxiety and a sensation of panic every time she remembers that she has a deadline. For Helen, feeling “blocked” causes her to feel worried, anxious, and unable to calm her mind and her body.
- Anxiety as a cure for creative blocks: Mark is convinced he cannot concentrate on his music. He is wondering if he can ever get past his feelings of anxiety regarding his relationship with his girlfriend, and feels discouraged as he has not touched his guitar in weeks. Initially, Mark views his feelings of anxiety as an obstacle directly getting in the way of his creative work. However, after embracing his anxiety as a complex emotional experience that can be expressed and represented through his musical compositions, he noticed a firing of creative sparks. He used his guitar as an additional outlet for his pent up worry, concern, and distress. Instead of focusing on a desired result, he let his anxiety about his relationship manifest through notes, chords, and melodies. In this example, anxiety was acknowledged as an emotion representing an inner state which found its “way out” through creativity. Anxiety is a messenger; by paying attention to the underlying message behind this feeling, one is able to unlock creative processes.
When talking about creative blocks, we cannot disregard the powerful, emotional experience of anxiety. Before deciding which one(s) to take, let us carefully think about how the experience of anxiety can hinder, stem from or facilitate feeling blocked creatively. For example, breathing relaxation exercises, taking medications, or embracing anxiety as creative fuel are all quite effective, but different, approaches. Understanding the unique ways in which each person’s anxious mood affects his/her creativity is important in deciding how to go about handling it.
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