If you struggle with anxiety, you know how much it can take a toll on your everyday life. Whether you suffer from an anxiety disorder, or more occasional anxiety, feeling anxious isn’t exactly inspirational or motivational. In fact, when anxiety is in charge, you’re more likely to act out of fear, rather than out of love or fierce creativity.
That said, there’s actually a fascinating connection between creativity and anxiety, one that may at first seem like a disadvantage to creatives who find themselves struggling with anxiety. However, if leveraged the right way, this connection can help creatives boost their creativity while helping them through their anxiety. It’s an ultimate win-win—if you know what you’re doing.
Anxiety and creativity
So what exactly is the link between anxiety and creativity?
Well, many experts believe that there is a positive correlation between creativity and anxiety, meaning the more creative you are, the more likely you are to struggle with anxiety as well.
There are a good number of examples that support this. People who are typically creative—including painters, musicians, actors, and writers—tend to struggle with mood disorders, including anxiety disorder. (Want specific names? Google it. You’ll see people like Lady Gaga, Chris Evans, Adele, Vincent Van Gogh, and Emma Stone in your results.)
But why does creativity feed anxiety? I would argue that it’s because anxiety is itself a form of creativity.
Anxiety is creating—in your mind—a scenario that hasn’t happened yet. Anxious people frequently worry about things they haven’t yet experienced, which requires them to create the experience in their mind. Some people are even able to imagine in vivid detail what these anxiety-inducing experiences would be like.
The bad and the good
We’ve already talked a little bit about why this link between anxiety and creativity could be bad. Anxiety is rooted in fear. Fear stifles creativity. If you’re letting fear drive, you aren’t letting your fierce creativity do what it really wants to do (make meaningful changes that “create happy” in your life and in the world).
But believe it or not, there are two things about this connection that can give you some hope, if you would define yourself as a creative (or aspiring creative) who struggles with anxiety.
- The fact that anxiety and creativity are connected can help validate your creativity. Perhaps one of the reasons it’s so easy for you to feel anxious is that you’re also pretty darn creative. If you try to reframe your anxiety as a manifestation of your creativity, it may help you see your anxiety from a different, more productive, perspective.
- You might actually be able to use your creativity to help you through your anxiety. That means that even though you feel anxious, if you’re also able to access some of your creativity, you could potentially use it to help you get through anxious spells in a more healthy way.
Creative exercises to help you through your anxiety
With that second point in mind, let’s explore a few creative exercises that might be able to help you through your anxiety.
Creating visual art is one popular way to use creativity to work through anxiety. “Art therapy” is even used by professionals to help break rumination cycles, calm the nervous system, engage focus, and more.
When you create visual art, you are:
- Giving your hands and your brain something to do
- Putting your energy toward being creative, not being anxious
- Considering things like pattern, color, and shapes, bringing you more into the present moment
- Giving yourself a visual representation of effort (i.e. teaching yourself that you have a measure of control in this situation)
Some specific ideas for using art to help you through your anxiety include:
- Coloring, especially coloring mandalas, which require “structured coloring of a reasonably complex geometric pattern,” which “may induce a meditative state that benefits individuals suffering from anxiety” (source). Coloring has an extremely low barrier to entry—it’s inexpensive, it requires no prior skills or knowledge, and the materials can be obtained easily, by anyone.
- Draw yourself, including representations of what your anxiety feels like in your body. Try drawing a rudimentary outline of your body, and then using colors to assign different physical sensations to different parts of your body (e.g. you might color your chest and neck red because they feel tight, or your stomach green because it feels nauseous). This helps you become more aware of how your body reacts to anxiety, helping you to identify it and (hopefully) handle it better.
- Draw your anxiety. What does your anxiety look like? It is an abstract blob of random colors and shapes? Is it a person who is feeding anxious thoughts into your head? You can even try drawing this with your eyes closed, and then opening your eyes to try to see if you can make sense of what you drew. There’s no right or wrong answer; the point is to turn your anxiety into something you can recognize, rather than a scary “unknown” that can’t be managed.
Writing is another popular way to use creativity to work through anxiety. Working to put words to your anxious feelings can help you pull out of the downward spiral of anxiety, so you can take a step back and examine the feelings for what they really are: feelings, not realities.
Here are a few creative writing exercises to try to help you through your anxiety.
- Pen pals. Write a letter to your anxiety. What do you want it to know? What would you say about how it makes you feel? Is there anything it does for you that you’re grateful for?
Once you’ve written your letter to anxiety, step into your anxiety’s shoes, and write a response back to yourself. What do you think your anxiety wants you to know? What is it trying to tell you? Be intentional about the language you use (what do anxious thoughts sound like in your head?). Try to nail down the role that anxiety plays in your life.
- Journaling. There’s a lot to be said for simply writing your feelings down. Get them all out in a journal. It can be handwritten or typed, written as a quick list or in long paragraphs—whatever works for you to get your thoughts and feelings out of your head and onto the page. (A gratitude journal is also a great way to combat anxiety and depression.)
- Poetry. If you’re feeling really expressive, poetry might help you get through anxious feelings. The nice thing about poetry is that it doesn’t have to rhyme (if you don’t want it to); it doesn’t have to follow a set structure (no need for iambic pentameter or anything like that); and it doesn’t even have to make sense to anyone but you. Just start letting the words flow, and see what happens.
As with art therapy, dance movement therapy is widely recognized as an effective tool to use when you’re fighting anxiety. There are certified dance movement therapists that can help guide your movements in ways that are designed to calm the mind and body.
That said, movement in general is considered to be an effective “medicine” for anxiety and depression. Even if all you’re doing is dancing in your kitchen or bedroom, you’re still getting the benefits from the movement (and the music)!
But is this type of free dance creative? Absolutely! Above all else, dance is an expression of feeling. So turn on a song and let your feelings guide you. If your anxiety is holding you back, that’s okay! Just be aware of it and do what you can.
Thought exercises/brain teasers/puzzles
Sometimes, all it takes to help you break through an anxious cycle is to turn your focus to something else. Even if that something else is a jigsaw puzzle, Sudoku puzzle, word search, or crossword puzzle, it’s still requiring you to spend mental energy on something that isn’t your anxiety. And that can go a long way toward calming your mind so that you can get past the panic your anxiety might be causing.
We wrote a whole post about games that increase creativity. Check that out for some specific ideas and sources.
Other quick tips to help you with anxiety
Having had plenty of experiences with anxiety myself, I can tell you this: sometimes, when you’re anxious, the last thing you feel like doing is getting creative. And guess what? That’s okay, too. Creativity isn’t the only way to help you through your anxiety.
Here are some other very simple things to try if you’re feeling anxious, but not very creative.
- Deep breathing. Simple, scientific, effective. Just taking some deep breaths can calm your body and mind.
- 5 senses. Bringing yourself to the present can help you get out of your head. What can you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch, right now?
- Read. A good book can take you out of your own world and into another. Try reading a couple pages and see if it helps calm your anxious thoughts.
- Socialize. A call, text, quick visit, or night out can help you through tough times. Even spending time with a pet can help lower anxiety.
Anxiety and creativity are closely linked—and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The next time you’re feeling anxious, try one of these creative exercises to help you through your anxiety. Focus your energy on a creative effort that will help get you out of your head, out of fear, and into the present moment, love, and fierce creativity.
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