Creativity and Anxiety - What's the link?

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Anxiety as a debilitating illness is on the increase. Up to a third of the UK population is estimated to be suffering with an anxiety disorder at any one time.

It's characterised by unpleasant physical symptoms, strong emotions accompanying the symptoms – and thoughts you might have about the symptoms as you go through them.

Surges of anxiety seemingly hit us at random, and it often isn’t long before the fear of an attack will affect our social and work interactions too.

Have you found yourself worrying about blushing in public, saying something odd or out of place to your colleagues, needing the loo too often, or perhaps not even being able to make it there in time?

Any of these worries can mark the beginning of avoiding social situations. It might be sparked off by the fear of not being able to absorb fully what others are saying, being overly self-conscious or concerned about not being able to focus on a conversation as your mind becomes increasingly distracted.

Many people suffer silently and alone, without turning to anyone for help until the symptoms have escalated out of control.  Part of the reason they hold off for so long, is simply the embarrassment and shame of owning up to the inability to handle very ordinary aspects
of daily life, without perhaps letting oneself down.

The Different Types of Anxiety in Creative People

In my practice I make little distinction between different types of anxiety. My main focus is on reassuring people that their symptoms are part of the anxiety and that with the right treatment, they will pass. We work on getting their emotional needs properly met and on mobilising their resources, of which creativity is often one.

Creative, or in this case Highly Sensitive People, are quoted as being more prone to anxiety than others. So, how do social situations affect the anxiety?

Heightened Sensitivity and Empathy

1. The heightened sensitivity and empathy of the creative person enables her to pick up atmosphere, mood and feelings of others like a sponge. Being open and curious she might gravitate easily towards people and situations without realising how exhausting this can be.

Have you ever noticed how easily your mood sways in social situations?

Has it ever occurred to you that you might just be sponging up the anxiety, insecurity or pain of someone else in the room?

Perhaps you’ve puzzled over the seemingly haphazard way in which your own vitality might suddenly drain away, in or after a social situation, leaving you with feelings of self-doubt or exhaustion?

If you are a worrier, overly anxious or hypersensitive it is important to develop an effective mechanism to protect yourself from this happening. However nourishing the company of others can be, we need to be wary of what we ‘take home with us’.

Searching for self

2. By their very nature creative people search to express ‘their unknown’  which is, as Georgia O’Keefe says, ‘always beyond you’.

Exposing this ‘searching self’ requires vulnerability. In the face of others, this can lead to huge self-doubt. People in general look for recognition of the known; confirmation of what they already know and want to believe. The unknown and tentative offerings of an exploring mind can easily be dismissed.

Think of the innovative and far-sighted team member trying to convince his colleagues of his new idea. He might feel as though he’s banging his head against a brick wall.

It might be the self-employed worker feeling her way towards the expression of her USP - unique selling point. The vulnerability of not quite knowing might make her overly sensitive to the opinions of others. People who are less inclined to think and ponder can after all, be very self-assured.

Finding your creative-self afloat between those two shorelines - one visible and concrete, the other shrouded and unknown - can make for very rough and nerve-wracking sailing.

A young creative client told me that, though she was generally content, she worried about the rising tide of her anxiety. It started as restlessness, a need to keep moving, but the uncertainty of her direction in the face of the well-meant and conventional advice from others, fuelled the worry, stopped her from sleeping and exacerbated her anxiety and self-consciousness, when in the company of others. She was well advised to be selective about whom she saw for a while.

What you can do to deal with anxiety

1.   Carve out time for solitude. 

Stepping into the presence of others from a still place, will allow you to maintain your footing for longer.

2.    Be AWARE as you deal with the rise and fall of your anxiety:

A=Accept it. Never fight it but surf the wave of discomfort instead.

W= Watch it. Perhaps gives it a score between 1- 10 to notice that the vehemence changes from moment to moment.

A=Act normally. Separate yourself from your fears and be an actor in your own play ‘faking’ being normal. Fake it till you make it.

R=Repeat the above and you will see that the waves will have dropped.

E= Expect the best! Always!

3.    Keep breathing right down to your feet and allow your body to soften often, creating a nice inner space - safe and private. Check into your feet often, so that you can feel them on the floor, holding you up.

4.    Realise how many people are self-absorbed, so they will hardly be paying attention to you! Observe them carefully to see what I mean.

5.    Deflect the spotlight from yourself by learning how to talk to others about themselves. Ask them questions about their lives and you will have hooked them onto their favourite topic - themselves.

6.    Step out of your social situation for as many mini-breaks as you need. Visualise yourself handling the situation well and with ease.

Last few thoughts...

Finally, remember that none of us can do without others. So, keep putting yourself out there. Expect the best and work on regaining your equilibrium between times.

If you feel too hijacked by your anxiety, consult an effective, brief, solution focussed therapist now.

The simplest and best book on anxiety I can recommend is by authors Ivan Tyrrell and Joe Griffin, How to Master Anxiety

Anxiety can be managed and it must never get in the way of making healthy connections with others; especially since you are likely to have valuable, creative and unique things to offer others.

Want more?

Download the Quick-Fire Guide to Stress and Anxiety

Successful stress and anxiety management is easier than you think but we often need reminders when we are in the midst of it. 

This guide has been created to do just that – to remind you of things you can do to calm down, get your needs met and connect to others and yourself when you're feeling stressed.


About Renée

Renée van der Vloodt ( M.A. , FHGI ) is a psychotherapist and coach – and has had a private practice for over 20 years, which is now based in Woodchurch (near Ashford), Kent.

Renée is the author of the CD Calm the Chaos of the Creative Mind and works with children and adults as a coach and therapist to help them overcome life's challenges and emotional difficulties including stress, burnout, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anger or addictive behaviour.

Renée provides executive resilience coaching and stress reduction programmes for teams.