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Creativity & Anxiety

[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]

People have swung around the idea for a long time that art is a privilege; that rich kids have a sort of leg up in the world of creativity because they don't have to worry about living. Their needs are met and, when given the choice to do whatever they want, they often want to do art. It's compelling and a bit sad all at once. I'm pretty sure nobody dreams of growing up and being an accountant, or of driving an hour to work each day just to sit in a grey cubicle, or of earning a paltry salary in the name of making someone else exorbitantly rich, but I digress.

Jordan Peterson once said that creativity is the opposite expression of anxiety. It's impossible to be creative if you're living with crippling anxiety after all. In order to be truly creative, you have to feel free, open, and relaxed. That in itself is a privilege that a lot of people don't have because a lot of people are struggling to get by. Anxiety over survival or bills or health can be all-consuming. Peterson also believes that living off one's creative endeavor is nearly impossible. Instead, a creative person should find a way to earn a living and practice their creative craft on the side. Not bad advice, if one has the time to do both.

The idea of art-as-privilege is obvious, so I'm going to explore the anxiety vs. creativity dichotomy Peterson brought up. There is something called creativity anxiety that encompasses the various ways creativity can be stifled by the side effects of anxiety: paralysis, perfectionism, and being unable to concentrate are just a few. Ian Lyons at the Georgetown University in Washington DC showed that anxiety decreases performance by examining people's fear of numbers. This examination was based on the anecdotal reality that math is the subject most people find the most stressful. While it's common to think math anxiety would stem from having lower ability, anxiety can flow in the opposite direction as well; the more anxious someone is about math, the lower their performance.

While anxiety can therefore decrease performance sometimes, it's also highly correlated with creativity. Scientific research has found that anxious people tend to be more intelligent and more imaginative. Imagination is the common, underlying trait to both innovation and anxiety. It's no secret that creatives often struggle with mental health issues. Vincent van Gogh suffered throughout his life, writing 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 times I have attacks of melancholy and of atrocious remorse." Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia said that music is “something that escapes between frenzies, between anxiety attacks.” Countless famous creatives have struggled with mental health issues: Robin Williams, Tolstoy, Hemmingway, all of these celebrities, the list goes on and on.

Anecdotally, I've found it nearly impossible to be creative when I'm feeling highly anxious. I've also found that creativity can help me step out of anxiety, and that creativity might almost increase during anxious times, if I'm able to compartmentalize and avoid being swallowed up by anxiety entirely. One study out of Sweden's Karolinska Institute found that creative people have an unusually high number of mood disorders. Creatives were 8% more likely to live with bipolar disorder. Writers were found to be one of the most susceptible creative types to live with bipolar disorder. In 1987, Dr. Nancy Andreason of the University of Iowa found that a sample of creative writers had significantly higher levels of bipolar disorder than a control group. She also noted that a writers’ first-degree relatives were more likely to be creative and suffer from mental illness. And a 2015 study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience found that genetic factors that raise the risk of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are found more often in people in creative professions. Painters, musicians, writers and dancers were, on average, 25 percent more likely to carry these genetic factors than less creative professionals like farmers, manual laborers, and salespeople.

Peterson makes the somewhat obvious point that most people are not highly creative, and that creative people must create or a large part of them dies. I think a large part of me would die if I couldn't be creative, but I also think my anxiety would be a lot worse. The ability to be creatively expressive is sort of like a valve that decreases the weight of the anxiety I carry. If you're a highly creative type too, it's worth understanding your particular psychology (to whatever degree is possible) in order to understand what triggers your creativity and what suppresses it.

“One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

P.S. Watch Jordan Peterson talk about the worst thing a creative people can do, read more about imagination as the underlying factor in both creativity and anxiety here, or watch this video about creativity and mental illness here.


Sarah Rose

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