(First published in Psychology Tomorrow Magazine)
When I was thirteen years old, I bought a wall hanging depicting neon-yellow lemons converging into a sea of lemonade. Emblazoned across the cloth was the now-clichéd phrase: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” At the time, I thought it was one of the most profound things I had ever heard. I would stare at those words, listening to Joni Mitchell, my young, teenage self just knowing that Joni’s exquisite music would not exist without a deeper anguish beyond what her already self-revealing lyrics divulged.
Though it’s been some four decades since my melancholic youth, I understand even more now that artists struggle with a higher-than-average rate of anxiety (as well as other mental and emotional issues). Our culture has even normalized the tormented artist syndrome, with drugged-out, depressed, and on-the-brink-of-nervous breakdown characterizations of musicians, painters, and writers in movies and books as a kind of anguished-soul archetype. But that torment isn’t just about the artist’s ongoing struggle of creating in a world that may or may not appreciate that person’s talent. It also stems from both the pre-existing anxiety and creativity—which can, in turn, further fuel the anxiety.
Co-founder of the Midwest Center for the Treatment of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression (http://www.stresscenter.com/), Lucinda Bassett notes in her bestselling book “From Panic to Power” that anxiety-sufferers tend to be highly creative people with fantastic imaginations. Bassett explains that this innate creativity can also exacerbate the anxiety. By using their imaginations to create the worst—and sometimes quite irrational—fears, people who suffer from anxiety may know that they are creative, but are unaware that their talent is actually stoking their fears.
Interestingly, a study by The Surrey Institute of Clinical Hypnotherapy (http://www.prweb.com/releases/2013/2/prweb10439696.htm) released on February 17, 2013, notes a higher propensity for anxiety amongst people who believe that they are creative in some way. Paul Howard, an anxiety specialist at the Surrey Institute of Clinical Hypnotherapy, surmises that creative people may be more prone to anxiety because they’re so talented in imagining quite vibrant visualizations of the “what-ifs.” Howard’s sentiments are in clear agreement with Bassett’s, with many anxiety-sufferer’s first-hand accounts in articles, blogs, and books attesting to the same finely-tuned talent in imagining the worse.
The October 17th, 2012 edition of the BBC news (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-19959565) by health editor of BBC News online, Michelle Roberts, touches upon the question of what kind of treatment options are the most beneficial for someone who may be suffering from emotional issues and at the same time is highly creative. Roberts notes that lead researcher Dr. Simon Kyaga suggests that disorders should be viewed in a new light—with certain traits actually being beneficial or desirable. Roberts quotes Dr. Kyaga as saying, “If one takes the view that certain phenomena associated with the patient’s illness are beneficial, it opens the way for a new approach to treatment.”
With this in mind, perhaps when artists engage in their work, what is happening beyond the outward expression of creativity is an inward kind of practical self-medication. And when creative people do not actively channel their abilities, their talent can turn on them, a rush of what-if imaginings flooding their minds with anxiety. The challenge for anxiety sufferers is to be able to acknowledge their creativity, then actively use it in whatever ways they can so that their talents become a positive force rather than a negative drain. As the renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell reminds us, the greatest weakness that a hero struggles with—and then overcomes—may very likely become that hero’s greatest strength.
Tracy Shawn, M.A. lives and writes on the Central Coast of California. Her award-winning novel, The Grace of Crows, is about how an anxiety-ridden woman finds happiness through the most unexpected of ways—and characters. Dubbed a “stunning debut novel” by top 50 Hall of Fame reviewer, Grady Harp, The Grace of Crows has won the Jack Eadon Award for the Best Book in Contemporary Drama, Second Place for General Fiction for the Readers Choice Awards, and Runner-Up for 2014 General Fiction with the Great Northwest Book Festival.