Does creativity really make us more vulnerable to depression?
Read a few biographies of talented creative and/or artistic people and you will see a common thread: many of them struggle(d) with depression too.
Take the actor Robin Williams or fashion designer Alexander McQueen as recent examples of people who battled continuously with depression and finally took their lives. Researchers in the field argue about whether creativity causes depression or, whether in fact depression fertilises the imagination. Some see no link at all.
I am no scientist but I am keen to offer my take, based on 20 years of experience, working with creative people. For me there is no doubt that creative people need to work harder to keep depression at bay.
Imagination comes with a health warning! It can make or break us.
Imagination is a sacred gift. All healthy humans are gifted with it as a natural resource and nothing can happen in life, if we don’t imagine it in some way first. A building needs to be envisaged before it can be put up.
Some of us need more encouragement and training to activate the latent presence of imagination and creativity; yet, others are hugely endowed in this area and appear to draw on it from a limitless and eternally fertile inner well.
Imagination feeds directly into creativity. It can help us create a better world for it also feeds into our ability to empathise and imagine what it might be like to be another.
As J.K. Rowling put it:
“We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”
Those who are particularly gifted with imagination tend also to feel more and notice more than others. All good and well, but imagination it seems, is like a double-edged sword.
Firstly, it needs to be recognised. Then we need to allow it a free reign to develop, run wild and surprise us. At the same time it needs to be contained - just as children need this balance in order to thrive.
For, if left to ruminate and imagine all sorts of horrors and ‘what-if’ scenarios, a creative imagination feeds directly into the cycle of depression.
Check out for yourself how imagining something uplifting like achieving a goal, having fun with a friend or being in a comfortable place immediately affects how you feel. In that same way, the mere thought of a confrontation with a boss, the loss of a job or loved one needs a just a millisecond to take a firm and uncomfortable hold of both mind and body.
OUR IMAGINATION AND HOW WE USE IT, AFFECTS US DIRECTLY
I have seen imaginative children run away from books with illustrations of snakes or monsters. These images could not have been more vivid in real life to these terrified children.
The ability to imagine too vividly the gremlins along life’s way can be hugely stressful and feeds directly into both depression and anxiety disorders. An unbridled creative mind affects our mental well-being.
In the long run it can lead to depression.
I've watched artistic people for decades. They can burn themselves out easily, too.
When their minds run off with them and their ideas grow, they often expect too much of themselves.
They raise the bar to unrealistic levels.
An obsessive pursuit of their goal is followed by the disappointment, when such unrealistic expectations cannot be fulfilled. This in turn can trigger off depression. And so they are prone to be pulled up and down by their overly-active, fast moving minds.
When emotional needs are not well met…
Mental well-being is dependent on maintaining an equilibrium, in a way that allows us to meet our all emotional needs in balance.
Creative people appear to find it so much harder to maintain that balance. Life at school or in the workplace is often not on their terms. They are interested in the exploration and the process of learning, while school directs them towards goals and targets where only the end result matters.
Creative people learn best by doing and experiencing. Listening and reading is often not their preferred style of absorbing new information.
Not being able to work in a style that suits them best can cause long-term stress as their need for status, control, quality attention exchange, sense of belonging or most painfully sense that life is meaningful, are compromised.
School life does not tap into their resources, making them feel ‘wrong’ or stupid a lot of the time.
A history of depression, anxiety, anger or addiction problems may well have kept concealed a beautiful gift of creativity.
Here are 3 immediate tips to nurture your natural creativity while also containing it in some way:
1. Check in a few times a day to increase your awareness of what is on your mind.
Ask yourself whether the thoughts are constructive and enriching, or not.
Take time to actively solve problems rather than letting them simmer under the surface.
2. Try not to be perfectionistic about everything. Accept ‘good enough’ at times and learn the ‘power of yet’ as Carole Dweck calls it.
3. Use Julia Cameron’s idea of ‘Morning Pages’ to rid your mind of surface clamour so that you can access the fertile soil below.
Remember that this ‘creativity’ can also manifest in being overly sensitive to foods, or sounds - as described in earlier blogposts, like “What is wrong with you?” - or other stimuli.
Look through the problems and mood swings associated with AD(H)D, dyslexia or dyspraxia and you might find all sorts of new possibilities linked to the creative gift.
Please share with your views on this subject in the comments below - and ways you may have found to help you stay on an even keel.
Thank you for reading!