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Blog // Thoughts
3 weeks ago

Living On A Cliff: Anxiety And Creativity

All of us are touched by anxiety. We experience it ourselves or know people who do.

It feels like we’re in the middle of an anxiety epidemic. Rates are rising, especially among teenagers and young adults.

It’s hard to know how big the problem really is. Not everyone who feels anxiety goes to see a medical professional. And some people don’t have access to good care. Sometimes, social and cultural shame gets in the way of talking openly about it.

What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a natural feeling. It evolved as a way to make us aware of dangerous, strange, and unusual situations. Standing on the edge of a cliff makes most of us feel a little anxious. It should. Cliff edges are dangerous places. Walk away from the cliff and the feelings should subside.

But sometimes we can’t regulate those feelings. When entering a train carriage, going for a walk, or trying to sleep feels like standing on the edge of a cliff, that’s anxiety.

I’m hesitant about labelling anxiety too precisely. People experience it differently. My first full-blown panic attack three years ago came out of nowhere. I was sitting in my home office doing email. And I just felt wrong. Like my body was melting. The skin on the top of my head felt like it was sliding off. It was the worst trip imaginable. At first I guessed it was a heart attack because my heart rate was all over the place, but subsequent tests confirmed it wasn’t.

The UK’s National Health Service defines anxiety as ‘…a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe’. They list a few known causes for general anxiety disorder, like excessive brain activity in areas that regulate emotion and behaviour, imbalance of brain chemicals, genetics, traumatic experiences, long-term health conditions, or a history of alcohol or drug misuse. But the definition goes on to say ‘…many people develop GAD [General Anxiety Disorder] for no apparent reason.’

Anxiety And Digital Media

Rates of anxiety have exploded at the same time social media has become an essential part of life. Maybe they’re not connected. After all, we’ve had email as a part of our work lives for more than 25 years. But the digital notification culture – constantly checking our phones throughout the day, sometimes as soon as we wake up – is new.

Digital apologists say we’ll adapt. We figured out how to cope before, with the printed page, the telephone, the radio and television.

But this time is different.

Lots of people say the worst thing about going on holiday is knowing they’ll come back to a mountain of emails. The demands on our attention, the weight of expectation from all that pending communication, feels excessive.

“It used to be that people knocked on your door, got no response, and went away. Now they’re effectively waiting in line when you come home.”
Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths

The digital economy relies on keeping us distracted and interruptible. The same logic that goes into making gambling machines addictive is the foundation for most of the apps we use. One report suggested adults spend 24 hours a week online. Another said adults check their phones 80 times a day.

Being perpetually distracted, susceptible to a constant barrage of notifications, fuels a sense of unease and keeps us always on the cliff edge, so to speak.

Anxiety And Validation

Most of us got into creative stuff because we wanted to be noticed. We might play it cool. Maybe we don’t seek fame and mainstream popularity. But something deep within us craves validation.

And the internet can be a remarkable tool for validation.

I’ve always said social media is at its best when used with authenticity, empathy, honesty, openness, vulnerability and in a non-anonymous way. There are powerful pay-offs for using it this way. It can become a great tool for meeting people, finding work, joining communities, or better understanding where you live or the things you love to do. But subtract any of those ways of using social media – maybe less authenticity, or less empathy – and the pay-offs diminish.

Taken to the extreme, used with inauthenticity, intolerance, dishonesty, narrow-mindedness, hardness and anonymity, and you have the worst of social media.

What does this have to do with validation? We share stuff online because we want to get it noticed. But it’s so easy to slip into comparisons. Why did their photo get more likes than mine? Why don’t my comments get shared more often? Comparing ourselves is occasionally good. A little competition might sharpen our focus. But doing it all day it distorts us. And the harshness of so much online commentary amplifies that effect.

Remember those principles for using social media well – authenticity, empathy, honesty, openness, vulnerability and non-anonymity? Those are also good principles for doing art well. So at its best, social media can fit creative goals. But we play our game within a much larger game that increasingly doesn’t play by the same rules. And this is a tremendous tension to live with – if we allow it to consume big chunks of our time – especially given how capriciously it’s governed by the invisible hands of mysterious algorithms.

Another cliff edge to stand on.

The Right Kind Of Validation

Validation matters. But its natural cycle is slow and sometimes small. The big validations are infrequent. The album, the show, the exhibition, the book. And we often know ahead of time whose validation matters, which audiences and critics we really want to impress. You walk to the cliff’s edge then walk away.

The regular validations are small, which makes them reliable. Turning up in the studio every day, the feel of our favourite camera, pen, or instrument… these are reliable, trustworthy forms of validation. They are part of a world we’ve chosen, a world which reflects our values and reminds us that following the creative path was the right choice. They are a walk among the trees, far from the cliffs, and dangers.

Both these kinds of validation are reinforced by real-life human interactions. Our life online can bring us into contact with people in the real world. No number of likes is a substitute for a congratulatory hug, knowing people have spent meaningful time consuming what you’ve made (hours and days, not fractions of a second), or the feeling of looking into someone’s eyes as they enjoy your work.

Anxiety And Complexity

The internet asks us to reduce our lives to the size of the screens we carry with us every day. Twitter’s 280 characters is the most extreme example. But all of them ask us to cut our life up into little snippets, like pre-chopped ingredients you feed into a blender.

And we’re constantly told to make our communication simple – like the odious acronym KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) – even when the problem isn’t simple.

Often what we try to grapple with, the thing we try to say through our art, isn’t simple. Guernica looks flat and lifeless as a Pinterest pin. Shakespeare is just another stage show on YouTube.

Our souls know these ubiquitous forms of communication are inadequate for the work we aspire to do. And so we feel anguish.

I see it in my friends who are professional photographers. They share their work on Instagram. But they know it’s a poor fit for what makes them a photographer. Photos made to fill a room when printed large can disappear in the tiny box of an online screen. They’ve made a compromise, and it eats away at them.

I’m not a clinical expert. But I believe there’s a subset of social media-fuelled anxiety which besets creative folk. The problem of validation becomes deeper. And we pitch our tents on the cliffside.

Anxiety and Burnout

We’ve all felt the awful consequences of burnout, the emotional exhaustion so deep it saps our motivation. It’s that feeling that our work doesn’t matter, or our accomplishments are worthless, like none of it will change anything anyway.

In this article Dr Clark Gaither cites six causes of burnout. All six are worth considering, but the last item on his list, conflicting values, is particularly relevant.

We often feel at odds with the culture around us. We’re makers in a world full of consumers.

It can hurt to try to build a life full of art and creativity, to surround yourself with beauty, and to freely express your imagination if you’re surrounded by people who don’t believe in those things – or worse, who mock them. We can feel perpetually self-conscious chasing something no one around us believes is possible.

Sometimes we can compensate for this by seeking inspiration, maybe taking a trip for a change of scenery or signing up for a course or workshop. But over time, if we can’t change our environment, it will eat away at us. And if we become harder, as a way to cope, it just erodes the sensitivity and vulnerability we need to fill our creative endeavours with humanity and originality.

It’s hard to stand on the cliff when people are throwing rocks at you.

Looking For Answers In Minimalism

A fascinating response to all this is the rise of minimalism. Listen to minimalists’ stories and you often hear how they felt overwhelmed. They frequently talk about stress and anxiety. Minimalism is a response to the always on, constantly notified, compelled-to-consume culture of today.

This is just as true of the growing trend of digital minimalism. It’s not just less time online for the sake of it, like getting rid of every app or device. But rather, focusing on what you want, then removing the distractions from that focus.

Sometimes minimalism looks like it’s just an aesthetic, like the empty-roomed, brown-and-grey style we see on Instagram or Pinterest – or in magazines, if you still like to touch paper.

But minimalism is also a mindset, which is how it can work powerfully as a response to anxiety. It’s a tool to remove distractions which keep our fight-or-flight mode constantly switched on, that makes us perpetually doubt ourselves or second-guess our decisions.

How Anxiety Changed Me

When my anxiety became problematic, it was hard to talk about. It felt like some sort of many-headed monster. The problem was clearly bigger than just the anxiety itself. I’ve probably had some sort of anxiety all my life and managed to deal with it before. On stage, or in the sporting area, sometimes I beat it and sometimes it beat me, but mostly I came out on top.

But this time I had to rebuild every aspect of my life. Talking with a therapist every other week helped. But hacking my sleep routine to break a lifetime of going to bed too late and sleeping irregularly maybe did more. And the various bits of experimentation and research I’ve written about in this creative health series and also the This Week I Quit posts also shows the extent to which I’ve had to evaluate every aspect of how I am in the world and be intentional about changing for the better.

Anxiety didn’t kill my creativity, but it did attenuate it for a long time. I can see it now, but I couldn’t see it then. I felt wrong, but I didn’t know why. I lost the ability to talk about my work. I could procrastinate for weeks over writing a new ‘about’ page, or even a social media profile. For a long time, I finished very few of the projects I started. I spent more time thinking than doing.

I was on the cliff edge every day.

For a while, maybe two years, I felt totally lost. I was trusting a process, the therapy, the daily writing, the changing habits in every aspect of life, changing who I spent time with and where my attention went, and the sleep. It changed me.

I was fortunate in having the time and resources to tackle the problem head on. There was nothing to be gained by hiding it, pretending to be strong, or minimising it.

To my surprise, dealing with anxiety made me more sensitive, more alert, more observant of the ways people around me were trying to cope with their days. After a while, as I started to get better, I found myself enjoying again the small details of creative work, the music of fingers racing over keys, the sound of brush and ink on paper, the way colours resolve themselves as you process a photo.

Over and over, as life became less fraught and cluttered, I was able to look on my past work with a greater sense of compassion for the struggling, rushed, and anxious guy I was.

What also changed was the way I was with people. I held each social situation more loosely, feeling less like I needed the perfect answer to every question, being closer to letting the work speak for itself.

Now I can go to the cliff and enjoy the view – at least for a little while.

Conclusion

The creative work we do calls us to face our fears on a daily basis. We make ourselves accountable for our ideas and originality. This is a remarkably vulnerable thing to do. Sometimes we have to stand on the cliff.

So we need to be intentional about the world we create around us, the ecosystem in which our creativity can thrive. Our mental health and our creative health are two sides of the same coin.

I’d like to see a world where going to see a therapist about your anxiety issues is no different to seeing a personal trainer about your fitness issues.

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