Creativity and Anxiety: Two sides of the same coin
“It wasn’t Lyra’s way to brood; she was a sanguine and practical child, and besides, she wasn’t imaginative. No one with much imagination would have thought seriously that it was possible to come all this way and rescue her friend Roger; or having thought it, an imaginative child would immediately have come up with several ways in which it was impossible.”
Philip Pullman, Northern Lights
Last year in Bali I listened to the audio version of the Northern Lights trilogy, three of my all time favourite books (and the subject of my university dissertation), and I richly remember sitting up in bed when I heard this. I’d read them all multiple times but had never picked up on these lines before. I paused, rewound, and listened again. And something clicked into place: namely, the link between creativity and anxiety.
I’m not like Lyra at all. I’m a naturally anxious person, and have struggled with panic attacks and low level anxiety since I was a teenager. While I frequently come across as a fairly optimistic and positive person, there is more often than not a “worst case scenario” film playing in the back of my mind. It is something I have battled against, and at the time I heard this still saw as a personal fault and flaw. I mis-wiring in my psyche that I needed to hide and fix.
(Before I go any further, I just want to make it clear that I don’t mean in any way to be flippant about mental health. If you are struggling with anxiety or depression then please contact your local health care provider, and seek professional support).
But on hearing these lines I realised that my anxiety is the other side of the same coin as my creativity. I realised that I am anxious because I am creative, and probably creative because I am anxious. I can’t separate the two. My anxiety comes from my imagination, and its ability to come up with a hundred different ways I can humiliate myself, damage myself or, die, on any given day. Unlike Lyra I can come up with several ways for things to be impossible.
And while I am far from assuming this is the case of everyone with anxiety, I also doubt I’m the only one. Our worries are often based on entirely fictitious scenarios, that don’t, and probably never will, exist in reality:
“When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened.”
Worry needs a fertile and active imagination to breed and take root, and to believe and continue to spin possible scenarios and outcomes of even the most happy and fortunate of events.
This might not seem like a massive revelation to you, but to me it was game changing for two reasons. The first was that my anxiety stopped being something I needed excavate from myself. I realised it is a part of who I am, and my personality as a whole, and given the choice, I would rather have both anxiety and creativity than neither.
And secondly it gave me a new coping mechanism: if I give my imagination something productive to do, it doesn’t have the time or energy to feed my worries. I was already writing morning pages, but I realised that they were serving another, hidden, purpose, and that getting creatively unblocked had also been part of why I was struggling less with anxiety at the time.
Now, when I begin to feel the first flutterings of anxiety in my stomach I try to turn on my laptop and get typing (this isn’t always possibly, obviously, and to be honest the worse it is the harder I find it to do this. But I do try). Sometimes I write about what I am worrying about, other times, what I find the most effective, I write out these fictional scenes out so that my imagination gets bored of them (I also have a short attention span) and I can see them for what they are: pure fiction. Other times I just write about something completely unrelated. Even doodling or even knitting sometimes helps.
But it’s also not just a quick fix. Incorporating creativity into my days lessens my anxiety, and it is often when I let my daily morning pages practice slip that I begin to feel a little tight in my stomach.
If you are struggling with anxiety then I am by no means saying this will definitely help, but perhaps it is worth a try?