Photo by Alice Dietrich on Unsplash
As many people with anxiety already know, anxiety is a perpetual state of living in fear of what could happen. I have had anxiety for most of my life, and I've also felt the need to be creative for most of my life.
There's a harmful set of beliefs out there regarding mental health and creativity. Namely, the idea that a person must be mentally unwell in order to create. I do not believe this. I believe the best work comes out of someone who is trying to be focused and healthy. I am talking about people who already have anxiety, and how we can channel that into creativity...not about causing anxiety in hopes of becoming more creative.
This might sound like a strange distinction to make, but there are plenty of people out there who justify self-harm in the name of being a pained, tortured artist.
Anxiety, at its core, is creativity. It can feel terrible. It's an obsession with horrible events that may not come true...and usually do not come true. Anxiety is a suit of armor...if I think of the bad thing, and then it happens, then I am somehow protected. I am prepared.
Anxiety is a defense mechanism. It's something I do automatically. It's something I try to calm down, to figure out, and lastly, to transform.
1. Envision a story where the worst does happen.
Repressing emotions and anxiety does not work. I realized this, even though I kept trying to push down the horrible thoughts over and over again. Finally, I decided to just...envision the worst happening, and envision how I would respond. Instead of fighting my impulses, I thought them out. Okay, and what if I got sick? What if I had to take care of others? What if...the worst happened?
Instead of trying to force those ideas out of my mind, I decided to run with them. Envisioning the catastrophes and, in place of ignoring them, I began to tell myself that I could handle any situation that came my way.
These thoughts of terrible things happening just pop into my mind. It's called catastrophizing, and it's extremely common with people who have trauma issues.
I cannot help the way my mind works, but I can listen to what it is trying to tell me.
2. Create actionable steps.
Okay. What if the worst did happen? What would I do?
Could I go on disability? Jump out of the car? Find a new job? Learn a new hobby? Identify myself in another way?
Instead of fearing for the worst, I began to imagine how I would solve these problems.
In the end, we all experience something bad. Pushing down my catastrophic thoughts did not help me, because I knew that eventually, something bad would happen. But I never tried to solve those problems. I thought about how I would not be able to handle them, how the worst would happen, and that I would just crumble.
Writing down solutions instead of just thinking of problems became a large part of recognizing what was actionable, and what was pure fantasy.
3. Write down the fantastic, just to get it out.
I thought horrible things would happen if I thought about them. I definitely thought horrible things would happen if I wrote about them.
But honestly, most of what I worry about never comes to pass. The worrying takes me out of the moment. The repression does, too.
Writing out these fantastic ideas helps me see how ridiculous they are. Life has downs, but it has ups, too. Was I missing the ups because I was fixated on the downs?
I began writing because I had terrible nightmares. Seeing the stories and seeing my thoughts helped me to contextualize them. After a while, when these nightmares never came to pass, I could see them as...fiction.
4. Try to determine if that is a project, or just venting.
I started to have stories...things outside of me that were not true. That itself was creative. But was this project something that I could expand upon? Was this a book? Did it have themes? Or was it simply a therapy session, a way to vent, a diary entry?
Now, the anxiety was externalized. It was not something that was inside of me, festering. It was a story I wrote, and now I could analyze it with my logic brain and expand upon it, or keep it as-is. I could research the topics. I could explore why I had these thoughts. I could find patterns in other anxiety episodes I had.
When I started blogging, I didn't quite know what was something fit for an audience, and what was venting. I still don't always know. But externalizing the thoughts does help lower anxiety, and helps me think about my own thoughts in a more rational and logical way.
Thoughts themselves are ephemeral. When something is written, I can better determine if the idea is deep, silly, or absurd.
5. Deal with the problem and the idea as two separate entities.
This might be what I hear referred to as the "observer" mind.
During an anxiety attack, many will recommend using an observer approach. Approach your own mind the way a scientist would...without judgment, and with curiosity.
Writing stories allows me to do this, as I'm sure other creative mediums do, too. Thought labeling is another practice that helps to separate myself and my identity from my anxiety. Simply put, thought labeling involves recognizing certain topics coming up repeatedly.
Once we know our own thoughts and can recognize the ones that keep coming back, we can change and manage those thoughts. For me, these topics become niches to write about and be explored.
By allowing my anxiety to "play" and then reigning it in, I express myself instead of repressing my emotions. I help myself feel confident even when I'm anxious, and begin to tell myself I can handle the worst, instead of denying something bad will ever happen.
Anxiety can be turned into creativity. This does not mean people should try to be anxious in order to be creative, but it does mean that people who are prone to anxiety are not necessarily limited, doomed, or incapable of healing.
We just need an approach that works for us.
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