According to the NHS website, anxiety is “a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe”. In its severe form, it leads to Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
I was diagnosed with GAD in early 2018. I had always been an anxious person, but over the years it had gradually gone worse. I’m not sure why, I think it is a combination of a bad situation at my day job and some events in my life. It culminated into a month where I had several anxiety attacks.
Anxiety is not your typical worry or fear that crosses your mind. Anxiety is… overwhelming. It doesn’t give you any rest, it takes control of your brain and no logical thought can break through its thick layer of dread. In one word: it sucks.
Everyone experiences anxiety differently. For me, anxiety is a voice in my head that prevents me from feeling joy. Or more accurately taints any happy moment with a “what if”. What if I lose this job? Or this relationship fails? What if this beloved person dies? The question is just the beginning. You see, anxiety is not just a collection of thoughts. Anxiety is also the feelings created by these thoughts. I don’t just wonder what if a person dies, I LIVE it. The scenario runs in my head as if it had happened. I feel the loss, the pain, the hurt. It’s devastating.
I recently listened to an episode of Oprah’s podcast with Brene Brown, the author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (I’m currently reading it and it’s PHENOMENAL, I strongly advise you to read it too).
During this episode, she said something about anxiety that stuck with me:
How many of us have thought, “Work’s going well. Good relationship with my partner. Holy crap, something bad’s going to happen.” (…) It’s when we lose our tolerance for vulnerability. It’s when joy becomes foreboding. We think, “I’m not gonna soften into this moment because I’m scared it’s going to be taken away.” (…) It’s like we’re trying to dress-rehearse tragedy so we can beat vulnerability to the punch.Extract from The Wholehearted Life: Oprah Talks to Brené Brown
It resonated with me because it’s exactly how I feel about anxiety. I am not an anxious person when things go wrong. I am not stressed by problems or obstacles. I’m anxious when things go right, when I am happy and life seems to be fine. That’s when my brain clicks into “what if” mode. Because things can’t stay good for too long, right? There must be something terrible waiting for me around the corner.
The Role of Imagination
The problem of being a writer is that the tragic scenarios that I run in my head are incredible detailed and realistic. After all, that’s my job! All day long, I imagine scenes that happen to my characters. My brain knows the process and uses it all the time.
Imagination is a fuel for anxiety. It enables it to go further and faster into a spiral downwards. It makes the anxious thoughts easily accessible, so easily in fact that it is almost automatic. Our brain is so used to create a different reality that we don’t notice the process anymore. When you have anxious thoughts, you don’t realise that these are purely made up, that these are an exercise of thinking and have no reality to them.
How Anxiety Impacts Creativity
Anxiety can have real, negative consequences on a creative person.
My first response to anxiety is to avoid doing the task that is making me anxious. For example, I had severe anxious feelings about writing this blog post, so much so that I postponed writing it for two weeks. Avoidance can reach a point where you are completely paralysed and are unable to do anything. Anything! On days like these, I can’t get out of bed. I can’t deal with emails or my social media accounts. Everything feels like an overwhelming task.
Paralysis can cause you to completely abandon your creative activities. And the more you avoid, the more difficult it is to go back because anxiety continues piling on. Sometimes, even the avoidance itself causes extra-anxiety.
Ahhh, the good old perfectionism. That nagging voice in your head that says that nothing you do is good enough, so you need to double check everything. I agonised over tiny details in my stories or books, because my anxious brain could easily imagine what would happen if I were to release something less than perfect. Usually it involved some sort of painful humiliation.
Perfectionism doesn’t allow us to make mistakes or to experiment. It makes us reluctant to share a project with the world. The thing is, perfectionism is just another word for avoidance. Instead of completely avoiding doing a task, like in a paralysis mode, we just avoid declaring it complete. For an artist, that means never releasing a piece of art or allowing themselves to be happy with a performance.
Anxiety means that your mind is never at rest. It means that you can rarely concentrate on a single task. When I write a story or a blog post, very often I’m interrupted by an anxious thought that pushes me to do something else. It takes a lot of willpower to go back to the original task and complete it, instead of flying from one anxious task to the next. It’s like my brain invents “fake” fires that I have to put out to distract me from the only “real” fire I should worry about.
Creative minds tend to be disorganised, simply because from the mess sometimes the greatest ideas can emerge. It is a problem, however, when this mess means that you never finishes anything.
What Can You Do To Fight Anxiety?
The good news is, you are not powerless against anxiety! There are strategies that you can use to keep it under control and continue creating.
1. Watch Your Thoughts
The first step to stop anxiety is to recognise anxious thoughts. It is very important because often we don’t even notice we are in “anxious mode”. Ruminating, exaggerating and generalising are thoughts patterns that lead to anxiety and that you can learn to spot. For example, do you replay a scene of your past in your head, only to make it much worse? Do you imagine fictional arguments with people? Or perhaps your thoughts go something like “it’s always like this, they always do that”?
We often wrongly believe that everything we think is true, and we often take every thought at face value. That’s the second step: it’s not because it comes from your brain that it’s necessarily true! To counter anxiety, you have to become an obtuse fact-checker and ask yourself questions like “Is this really true? Can I find a counter-example? Can I imagine a different outcome? Is my brain just torturing me?”
Once you become used to recognise and challenge your thoughts, you can operate a selection. You don’t need to keep those who are obvious lies and make you feel awful. You can catch yourself ruminating, eliminate these thoughts and replace them with more productive ones.
I’m not going to lie, this process is not easy and it takes time to apply. I am not perfect at it, I still sometimes fall back into old pattern because I’m so used to them. But it does work and it does help!
2. Create Every Day
I talked about this briefly in my previous post about creating every day. Building a habit of creating every day can help you stop avoidance patterns and reduce the level of anxiety about your art.
The idea is to counteract the paralysis caused by your anxiety. Avoidance is not an option when you make a habit of doing something every day at the same time. In other words, you remove the choice to create, you do it because it’s a habit. Creating becomes automatic. Therefore it is much more difficult for your anxiety to prevent it.
There are many techniques related to mindfulness that can help with anxiety. One of the first ones I tried was meditation. It particularly helped when I felt a panic attack coming. Concentrating on breathing, on listening to a guiding voice or on relaxing parts of your body is a way to stop your brain from going on overdrive. I am not a specialist about meditation, but I try to practise it regularly. It’s the best way I’ve found to avoid a crisis.
Practising gratitude is also something that seems to have a calming effect on my anxious thoughts. I concentrate on how grateful to have people or things in my life, I think it intensely or I write it down, and somehow the anxious thoughts go away almost every time. It’s like gratitude is an antidote to the “future tragedy” thoughts.
4. Get Help
This is probably the part of this article that I’m the most scared about sharing, because almost nobody knows that I sought help last year to face my anxiety problem. I think, however, that it is important for me to share this because there shouldn’t be a shame about needing some help. There shouldn’t be a stigma about mental health treatments, the same way nobody sees a problem with treatments for physical problems.
I was fortunate to have access to the charity Mind. I went through a talking therapy for several months, with a fantastic therapist. It wasn’t always easy, but it helped me tremendously. With my therapist, I had the opportunity to understand better who I am and where my anxiety comes from.
There are MANY people who can help you with your anxiety, from your friends and family to experienced professionals. And there are many types of solutions, books to read, therapies and conversations to have. Don’t make the same mistake as I made: for the longest time I thought I was alone with my worries. The reality is that you can find help and assistance to feel better.
When I started writing The Part-Time Artist, I wasn’t sure how much I would share about my life. However, what had started as a “how to” manual about time management became much more personal when I decided to include a chapter about mental health. I simply couldn’t ignore such an predominant part of my life, and quickly it became the longest chapter of the whole book. Struggling with mental health IS a reality for many creatives, and we can’t keep pretending it doesn’t exist.
If you are suffering from anxiety, I hope that this article was beneficial. And if you are considering buying my book, I hope that my story will resonate with you and will show you that you can overcome these issues too.
Do you live with anxiety? Have you found techniques that helped you defeat it? Or would you like to talk about it more? Don’t hesitate to comment below or contact me.