For a while now, science has shown that anxious people tend to to be more intelligent. Now we are finding that there is a link between anxiety and being more creative. In my work with artists, I find that many of them feel anxiety even if the symptoms vary from one person to another. It's not uncommon to learn that creative people, like artists, musicians, dancers, and writers live with mental health challenges like anxiety.
Painter Vincent van Gogh suffered throughout his life, as he explained in a letter to his brother: “I am unable to describe exactly what is the matter with me. Now and then there are horrible fits of anxiety, apparently without cause, or otherwise a feeling of emptiness and fatigue in the head … at times I have attacks of melancholy and of atrocious remorse.”
Artist Edvard Munch, painter of the famous painting "The Scream" suffered from anxiety and hallucinations throughout his life. In fact, that painting came to him as a vision while he was trembling with anxiety. He wrote in his diary: “My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.”
Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia said that music is “something that escapes between frenzies, between anxiety attacks.” It's known that some artist capitalize on their neurotic view of the world to fuel their creative ambitions. I imagine you know some people in your own life who fit the description of an anxious artist. Or maybe you're channeling your own anxiety into artwork.
Throughout history, social scientists have supposed that there may be a link between anxiety and creativity. For a long time this hypothesis was based upon anecdotal evidence alone, but today there is a growing body of research that suggests there actually is a link between creativity and mental illness.
What the science tells us
One of the first key studies, which found that creative people had an unusually high number of mood disorders, reviewed individuals in creative fields such as literature and the arts. Researchers in Sweden’s Karolinska Institute followed more than one million Swedes and their relatives using a registry of psychiatric patients. The patients demonstrated conditions such as anxiety, depression, or schizophrenia. The study revealed that people working in creative fields, including dancers, photographers and authors, were eight percent more likely to live with bipolar disorder. Writers alone were 121 percent more likely to suffer from the condition. Researchers also found that people in creative positions were more likely to have relatives with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, which shows that there may be a genetic trigger for both creativity and mental illness.
In 1987, Dr. Nancy Andreason from the University of Iowa found that a sample of creative writers had significantly higher levels of bipolar disorder than a control group. Andreason also noted that a writers' first-degree relatives, meaning their parents, siblings, or child, were more likely to suffer from mental illness. In 1994 a study looked at 60 female writers' mental health. The results of that study revealed that writers had a significantly higher rate of depression, mania, panic attacks, or generalized anxiety as compared to the study's control group. A 2004 survey by psychologist Erika Lauronen found that of 13 published studies, all but one supported a connection between mental illness and creativity.
More recently, in 2015, a study that was published in the journal of Natural Neuroscience found that genetic factors that raise the risk of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are found more often amongst people who are in creative professions. Creative people were, on average, 25 percent more likely to carry the gene than less creative professionals like farmers, manual laborers, and salespeople. The scientists point out that to be creative, people need to think differently, and this may be genetic.
Imagination is the main reason for the connection between anxiety and creativity is imagination. The difference lies in the fact that the same brain that conjures up inventive artwork can also get stuck in repetitive thoughts and unpleasant worries. These individuals use their imagination to visualize something before it happens, whether it's their artwork or an issue (real or otherwise) that scares them and causes them concern and panic. People with both traits tend to overthink and over-analyze nearly everything, this can increase anxiety. However, dwelling on one's fears may be the root of creativity and problem solving. A double-edged sword, right?
There are still some people who question the direct link between anxiety and creativity. The research does tend to be limited because it is difficult to define what "creativity" is and replicate it for study. People will argue that while a correlation may exist between these two traits, one does not necessarily cause the other. For sure, there are plenty of people who are creative who don't battle anxiety or other mental health issues.
What does this mean for you, a creative person?
So, what should you do if you're an anxious creative type? Of course it's always a good idea to get professional help from a therapist who can work with you to evaluate what is actually going on and formulate a plan of action...and then walk with you through that plan. Once we learn what is actually going on, we can begin to gain tools and start using the imagination in a helpful way to minimize anxiety. It turns out that some artists are able to channel their anxiety in the right places to their benefit. Creativity comes from expression, and some of the most powerful forms of expression result from our struggle.
Here are some ways to transform anxiety into creativity.
1. Identify what you are feeling.
Name the feelings: You’re scared. You’re anxious. You have creative anxiety. Ask yourself what is behind the feelings: You’re afraid of failing. You’re afraid of succeeding. You’re afraid of producing terrible work. Then, make a list of all the things that might be standing in your way, creating the feelings. When you name your feelings and what is holding you back, they become easier to face. Getting them outside of your head and onto paper makes them tangible. When they are outside of you it is possible to see how you might deal with them and how they are not as big as the internal feeling makes them out to be.
2. Consider why you're doing this (creating) in the first place.
My guess is that you didn't start creating things because you felt that you should. People do lots of things because they feel like they should, but they don't become writers, painters, sculptors, and dancers because they should. That doesn't happen because there is a lot of risk involved in creating. There's not much security in being an artist, so no wonder why it scares you. No wonder you experience anxiety. You're going to make something no one's ever made before. A brand new thing. That's inherently risky. And what's more, it's something that goes straight to the core of who you are. Creating art reveals your deepest self and it's going to be reaching out to the deepest self of others. That's also risky. But isn't that why you do it? The things that scare you are precisely the things that compel you to make art in the first place. They scare you because you need them, they are a big deal, and there's no certainty that you will be successful. But that is what makes the whole process valuable. You don't have to make art. You're not doing it because you should. You're doing it because you want to. Keep that in mind the next time you are afraid to get to work. You started this because you want to.
3. Lower your expectations of yourself.
Stop being so hard on yourself. Creators want so much to make something good, useful, and beautiful. Artists have grand visions and they want to make those visions come to life. They strive for it to come to fruition and wonder why what they produce never matches up to the dream in their head. There is often a disconnect between what you want to be able to do and what you can do. You have to become okay with your limits. It's also important to become comfortable with failure. We learn through failure, so it's okay to produce crap sometimes. The only thing that matters is the making.
4. Remember what it felt like to make art as a kid.
Remember when you drew monsters with crayons as a little kid? Wasn't that great? Wasn't it the best feeling in the world? Hold on to that feeling. Call upon it every time you sit down to work. Be a kid artist.
5. Calm yourself before beginning.
If you don't already have a daily mindfulness practice, I suggest developing one. Yoga, breathing exercises, and body scans can be helpful to help you remain grounded and focused as you begin your work.