How to overcome anxiety with creativity

Howdy! My name is Jenna, and I hail from the Lone Star State in the US of A. I am a writer, editor, and creator. I also live with mental illness which is what I am here to talk about today – more specifically, the principles I use to maintain my creativity and productivity during times when my inner demons threaten to overwhelm me.

Those Pesky Inner Demons

After a month of successful productivity as indicated by my todoist Karma points, the boxes of junk ready to be transported from tidying up my office, a completed art journal, and several completed articles, a recent Monday morning completely threw me off my productivity game.

It began with waking up, overwhelmed with inner resistance and dread of the sort I had not experienced in a very long time. At first, I could not understand where this was coming from. I had been on a roll, even being careful not to overdo it (because it finally got through my thick skull that downtime actually improved my overall creative thinking and output). I realized, after over an hour of being unable to get out of bed, that I had missed several days of taking my antidepressant.

This wasn’t an intentional mishap on my part. I had recently been making some adjustments to my morning routine which impacted my medication routine. But, the mistake I had made was getting smug about my productivity – thinking that my recent streak was all attributable to sheer willpower.

One of the hardest things about living with a mental illness is that willpower and choice isn’t all black and white, do or do not. Sometimes all those funky chemicals in your head get out of sync. They start screaming at you and drown out everything else – all the positive, all the motivation, all the faith. You might be aware that this is happening, but you feel powerless against it, and that only makes you angrier and even more despondent: Why can’t you control it? Why can’t you control anything?

While I may have an official diagnosis from an officialized person, these sorts of feelings are by no means limited to those of us with official diagnoses from officialized persons. In fact, that diagnosis doesn’t really matter because we all have our own demons. What does matter is how we deal with our demons so we can continue to live the creative life we seek.

3 Principles I Use for Facing My Demons

I am regularly reading the stories of other artists and creators, looking for commonalities and new ideas. Eventually, these stories become a part of my own creative process as I play with and adapt them to my own circumstances and personality. The following three principles are a result of that and have been integral to dealing with my own inner demons: those ones that tell me I am not good enough, that I am just a lazy git, that it’s all just too hard. These principles are an amalgamation from other artists and creators: the shoulders of giants on which I stand in order to stare those demons down.

1. Doing It For Myself

Creating is an amazing act, however humble or grand, but as a self-proclaimed creator, I often tend to aim closer to the grand side of things than the humble side. What this means is that I end up putting far too much pressure on myself and, consequently, collapsing under the weight of my own great expectations. I imagine into being this grand audience of esteemed peers and readers that in no way exist in any approximation of reality. It’s all just in my overly ambitious head where my inner demons and own worst critics lurk, just looking for a way in. This is where doing it for myself comes in.

Think of it like this – we are already creating for ourselves because creating makes us happier than any other kind of work. That’s not selfish or wrong, it’s actually really brave. You are brave. I am writing this article because I often don’t know what I think until I write it. Putting it out there in the world and helping other creatives is just a happy bonus, and a reminder to myself to be brave, just like you.

One of my favorite examples of doing it for yourself is a collection of illustrations by Toby Allen. Toby Allen is an artist who happens to have an anxiety disorder. One day he decided to draw his mental illness as a monster. This eventually became a collection of monsters representing a range of mental illnesses, including anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, social anxiety, avoidant personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, paranoia, and dissociative identity disorder.

 

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Allen’s drawing of depression from his Tumblr page.

In turn, Allen’s work inspired fiber artist Emily Monaghan to transform Allen’s 2D illustrations into 3D works of art. She ran a successful Kickstarter to launch a limited edition collection of mental illness plushies based on Allen’s art, and she’s even added a pattern to Ravelry. Allen’s creations inspired another creator – that’s how doing things for ourselves end up doing things for others, and both creative endeavors provide comfort to a huge population of people who really need it.

2. Stepping Away from the Internet

The internet is often where I find stories to help me better my own creative process or to spark ideas and inspiration (see the above example, after all). It is also where I wind up mindlessly clicking away at the “if you like this article, read this one” until the memory on my desktop is maxed out. Or I keep arranging and rearranging my Evernote, the place where all my creative ideas and plans are stored due to the misguided belief that organizing for creative ideas will result in actual creativity. Eventually, I end up like this adorable sea otter named Nellie, arranging her cups over and over again…except not nearly as cute.

Principle number two: you have to make the internet work for you, not you for the internet.

Recently, I went on a technology detox that was inspired by Caylee’s article “Produce More, Consume Less.” By doing on a technology detox, I took ideas and strategies from a fellow creator and made them work for me. For example, one of the first things I did was quit Facebook. While Facebook can be a great source of community for some people, for me it’s a useless timesuck that encourages me to needlessly compare myself with other people who my inner demons convince me are getting the whole creative life thing more right than me. Clicking the “deactivate my Facebook account” button felt like removing a physical weight off my chest. This then set in motion a series of further actions for stepping away from the internet more often.

Once I step away from the internet, I make it a point to reward myself with something that engages my body. It might be as simple as propping my feet up on my desk and leaning back in my chair. It might be pouring myself a glass of wine and sitting on my super comfy sofa with a physical book, immersing myself in the texture of the pages and the smells emanating from my wine glass. Other times, I might just doodle in my journal with my favorite pens, the sound of pen on paper providing an incredible sense of satisfaction.

3. Making Spiritual Habits

A part of being creative is being in my head a lot, processing things that inspire me in order to transform them into useful and/or beautiful creations. Being in my head like this, while crucial to my process, has its consequences because my head is the same space where those inner demons lurk. Stepping away from the internet and engaging with my body is one way of transitioning from this headspace, but I often have to take a step farther. I have to establish a spiritual habit.

The importance of spiritual habits finally dawned on me during my grandmother’s funeral last year. A devout Catholic, she had arranged for a traditional Catholic funeral. While I had occasionally attended mass with her as a child, it was not a regular activity for me. During the funeral, my father, who grew up Baptist, and I fumbled our way through the hymns and genuflections, while my mother, who had not attended a single Catholic event in several decades, proceeded with complete ease as the recesses of her memories took over. The spiritual ritual had become a habit for her because she had learned them at a young age and repeated them over and over again. As someone whose spiritual perspectives can best be described as a bunch of gobbledy goop glued together with gumption, in that moment, I finally understood the significance of spiritual ritual to moments like these.

Dealing with inner demons is no different. I need spiritual habits to work through the trauma, something to fall back on when the inner demons are telling me that I am no good.

This principle is the hardest for me because of some negative experiences with institutionalized religion from my childhood, but I am learning to find what works for me. I am also learning how to move beyond what works for me in order to learn about and even participate in rituals that have been providing people comfort in times of trauma for a very long time. I have found solace in Catholic rituals that honor my grandmother, and I have found revelation in rituals far beyond my comfort zone. Being comforted by these rituals myself reminds me that I am not alone – I am not the first to deal with mental illness and inner demons, nor will I be the last. I encourage you to find your own rituals that can become spiritual habits for you. More so than the other principles, this one is the most individual and will only come with a willingness to learn and to practice. But remember, a ritual is a creative act and you are a creator. You have it in you already.

As these are suggestions based on my own experience and we are all standing on the shoulders of giants, I would love to hear how you deal with some of your inner demons. I am still new to this community, but have continually found inspiration here. Please share some of your own principles and strategies in the comments section. We are always stronger as a community.

Guest Post by Jenna

Jenna

Jenna is a writer, editor, and creator. She is arguably over-educated and most certainly uncomfortably honest.

Say hello on Twitter (and tell her Caylee says hi!)

  • Hi fellow Texan! I struggle with social anxiety, often choosing to just stay home and create. And being an artist I also get anxiety about doing custom work for others. What helps is just stepping away for a bit and doing things for myself. Things that make me happy, just drawing, etc.

    • Hi Katie, and yay fellow Texan! I think also stepping back and doing it for yourself is good reminder, at least for me, of what my priorities are – reminds me of the why I am doing this. Thanks for sharing!

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