Are anxiety and creativity connected?
Have you ever wondered if there’s a connection between feeling anxious and being creative? While anxiety is usually regarded as a negative feeling, there’s a compelling argument to be made that some anxiety actually boosts creativity.
Wait, why on earth would I suddenly start talking about how great anxiety might be for your art? I’m the one who’s always trying to help people feel less anxious!
I’ll explain myself in this article, which explores the connection between anxiety and creativity, and how they influence each other. I’ll look at practical ways to use anxiety to enhance your creative abilities, as well as effective ways to cope with anxiety when it’s bringing you down instead of sparking your creative energy.
The Surprising Link between Anxiety and Creativity
Anxiety is extremely common: one in five people have an anxiety disorder, and over 60 percent of people report that stress or anxiety interferes with their life in a negative way.
The unpleasant feelings of worry or uneasiness that accompany anxiety can be paralyzing. But did you know that beneath its surface, anxiety and creativity might go together more than we realize?
Philosopher Kierkegaard wrote at length about how anxiety and creativity are related. I tried to find a direct quote from him, but he’s just too wordy and his writing made me sleepy!
Enter Rollo May, a 20th century existentialist and psychologist, who discussed Kierkegaard in his book The Meaning of Anxiety, originally published in 1950. May wrote: “Kierkegaard … is always speaking of anxiety in its relation to creativity. Because it is possible to create — creating one’s self, willing to be one’s self, as well as creating in all the innumerable daily activities… — one has anxiety. One would have no anxiety if there were no possibility whatever.”
Furthermore, May wrote, “To put the matter figuratively, in every experience of creativity something in the past is killed that something new in the present may be born.”
My take on this is that creating is inherently anxiety-producing. If you’re not destroying the old and creating the new, then you are feeling guilty that you’re not fulfilling your human potential of creating something new. In other words, choose the cause of your anxiety: from creating, or from not creating.
The anxiety Kierkegaard wrote about is more philosophical and less clinical, but I think this is a helpful context. Creating necessitates a certain amount of anxiety — maybe not the amount that paralyzes you and keeps you from creating, but it’s helpful to remember that creating something new will involve a certain amount of angst.
By learning how to manage our anxious feelings, we might be able to use them to think in new and creative ways.
Using Stress and Worry to Boost Creativity
Pressure Can Drive Creativity:
When we’re stressed or worried, our brains start looking for ways to solve problems. This pressure can actually help us think more creatively.
The next time you feel stressed about something, notice whether any creative solutions occur to you. When you are in the mild to moderate range of anxious arousal, you may be in a prime position to make new connections.
Turning Negative Feelings into Art:
Our feelings, even the not-so-happy ones, are like colors on an artist’s palette: material to work with. Many famous books, paintings, and songs are inspired by sad or challenging feelings.
So, don’t be afraid to use those feelings to express yourself creatively. Taking something difficult and turning it into something beautiful is a tried and true roadmap to creating art.
One of the most famous examples of turning painful feelings into art is probably Munch’s visionary painting “The Scream”, born out of his own anxiety and remaining relatable to viewers over a century later.
Using Your Imagination for Good:
The common denominator driving the anxiety-creativity connection is imagination. Creativity demands thinking differently, often requiring individuals to visualize outcomes before they occur, and make connections that are not obvious.
This same imaginative skill can, however, become a breeding ground for repetitive and distressing thoughts. When you’re anxious, you are worrying about the future and things that haven’t happened yet. This future-thinking requires imagination.
If you are overthinking and over-analyzing, you are using your imagination, but you are also probably feeling anxious. “What if” is a common refrain in anxious thinking, often resulting in imagining bad things that might happen.
But, “what if” you used that imagination for something positive? Try this to come up with creative ideas: don’t just imagine the worst thing that could happen, but also the best thing, the most unlikely thing, the most science fiction thing, and so on – the sky is the limit. You have just generated a bunch of ideas that could turn your worry into a story, drawing, etc.
Thriving Under Pressure:
Typically, deadlines are stressful, but they can also help us work better. When we’re in a hurry, we don’t have time to doubt ourselves. We just do the thing. And that can lead to some really creative work. So, embrace those deadlines as opportunities to create in a less self-conscious manner.
Learning from Anxiety for Future Growth:
Every time we feel stressed or worried, it’s a chance to learn more about ourselves. How do we handle tough situations? Who do we ask for help? What makes us feel better? Paying attention to these things can help us manage anxiety better, and tap into creativity more effectively. It’s like turning stress into a stepping stone for growth.
The Tricky Part About Anxiety and Creativity: It’s a Balancing Act!
While anxiety can help spark creativity, it’s important to remember that too much anxiety can interfere with making art. When the nervous system is too activated, our brain can shift into “fight or flight” mode.
In this state, our focus narrows, and our brain becomes less capable of thinking outside the box or making creative connections. The overwhelming rush of anxiety can drown out the subtle whispers of inspiration.
Navigating this balance involves both lifestyle habits and mindset shifts. To help yourself onsider:
Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques:
Learning techniques like deep breathing, meditation, or yoga can help manage anxiety and keep the mind open for creative ideas.
Setting Realistic Goals:
Breaking down creative projects into smaller, manageable steps can reduce anxiety and help maintain focus.
Healthy Lifestyle Habits:
Regular exercise, balanced nutrition, and sufficient sleep can support both mental well-being and creative thinking. Getting Active is particularly helpful for anxiety. When stress or worry makes us feel restless, doing something physical helps burn through stress hormones. Activity helps distract us long enough to calm down, and it also creates a host of physical changes that improve your state of mind. Even a ten-minute walk has been shown to have significant anxiety-management effects.
Connecting with a mentor, therapist, or creative community can provide outlets for sharing anxieties and gaining insights from others. Read more about the importance of community in my blog article on this topic, “What is Creative Community and Why is it Especially Important if You’re Anxious?”
Finding the Balance and Managing Anxiety on Our Creative Path
The connection between anxiety and creativity is not straightforward. Anxiety can present challenges in our lives and, let’s face it, it feels bad.
However, on an existential level, anxiety is linked with the mere act of creation. So, it’s worthwhile to learn how to come to terms with a certain amount of angst as an artist and creative.
A certain amount of fear and imposter syndrome comes with the territory of being an artist, but it’s possible to navigate these issues, and feel confident and excited about creating.
What I’m not saying is that you’re doomed to feel super anxious for the long run. One thing I find myself saying often as a psychologist is “Anxiety is treatable!” There are effective solutions for the kind of anxiety that shuts you down and keeps you from living the life that you want. By understanding how anxiety and creativity can work together, we can learn to make the most of both.
If you’re interested in navigating anxiety and creativity in an online community, I’m excited to announce that the waitlist is open for my membership program, Creative Ease. This online program is designed for creatives like you, and you’ll have access to tools, strategies, live Q and A’s with me, and community to help you thrive.