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Excerpted from Mastering Creative Anxiety: 24 Lessons for Writers, Painters, Musicians, and Actors
by Eric Maisel, PhD | Updated October 12, 2018
Many anxieties arise as you attempt to create. There is the anxiety of facing a blank canvas and fearing that you have nothing to say or that you have something to say but won't say it well. There is the anxiety that comes with putting yourself "out there" and risking criticism and rejection.
There is the related anxiety known as performance anxiety that afflicts almost everyone. There is the anxiety associated with going into the unknown, with relinquishing control, with making choices (as the creative act is one choice after another) innumerable anxieties arise as you try to create and as you try to find an audience for what you create.
In order to create and to deal with all the anxiety that comes with creating, you must acknowledge and accept that anxiety is part of the process, demand of yourself that you will learn and really practice! some anxiety management skills, and get on with your creating and your anxiety management. There is no reason for you not to create if "all" that is standing in the way is your quite human experience of anxiety. What follows are fifteen anxiety management tools. For a further discussion of these and other techniques that you can employ, please take a look at my book Mastering Creative Anxiety.
You can choose to be made anxious by every new opinion you hear or you can choose to keep your own counsel. You can choose to be over-vigilant to changes in your environment and over-concerned with small problems or you can shrug such changes and problems away. You can choose to involve yourself in every controversy or you can choose to pick your battles and maintain a serene distance from most of life's commotion. You can choose to approach life anxiously or you can choose to approach it calmly. It is a matter of flipping an internal switch one that you control.
Incorrectly appraising situations as more important, more dangerous or more negative than they in fact are raises your anxiety level. If you are a writer and consider it important what weight of paper you use to print out your manuscripts, you are making yourself anxious. If you hold it as dangerous to send out your fiction without copyrighting it because you're afraid that someone will steal it, you are making yourself anxious. If you consider form rejection letters genuine indictments of your work, every form rejection letter will make you anxious. You can significantly reduce your experience of anxiety by refusing to appraise situations as more important, more dangerous, or more negative than they in fact are.
Your lifestyle supports calmness or it doesn't. When you rush less, create fewer unnecessary pressures and stressors, get sufficient rest and exercise, eat a healthy diet, take time to relax, include love and friendship, and live in balance, you reduce your experience of anxiety. If your style is to always arrive chronically late, to wait until the last minute to meet deadlines, and to live in disorganization, you are manufacturing anxiety. How much harder will it be to deal with the creative anxiety in your life if your very lifestyle is producing its own magnum of anxiety?
What you actually do when you feel anxious makes a big difference. Behaviors like playing games or watching television for hours quell anxiety but waste vast amounts of your time. Behaviors like smoking cigarettes chemically quell anxiety but increase your health risks. If a ten-minute shower or a twenty-minute walk can do as good a job of reducing your anxiety as watching another hour of golf or smoking another several cigarettes, isn't it the behavior to choose? There are many time-wasting, unhealthy, and dispiriting ways to manage anxiety and many efficient, healthy, and uplifting ways, too.
The simplest anxiety management technique is deep breathing. By stopping to deeply breathe (5 seconds on the inhale, 5 seconds on the exhale) you stop your racing mind and alert your body to the fact that you wish to be calmer. Begin to incorporate deep breaths into your daily routine, especially when you think about your creative work and when you approach your creative work.
Changing the way you think is probably the most useful and powerful anti-anxiety strategy. You can do this straightforwardly by 1) noticing what you are saying to yourself; 2) disputing the self-talk that makes you anxious or does not serve you; and 3) substituting more affirmative, positive or useful self-talk. This three-step process really works if you will practice it and commit to it.
A variation on strategies five and six is to use them together and to "drop" a useful cognition into a deep breath, thinking "half" the thought on the inhale and "half" the thought on the exhale. Incantations that might serve to reduce your experience of anxiety might are "I am perfectly calm" or "I trust my resources." Experiment with some short phrases and find one or two that, when dropped into a deep breath, help you quell your anxious feelings.
Physical relaxation techniques include such simple procedures as rubbing your shoulder and such elaborate procedures as "progressive relaxation techniques" where you slowly relax each part of your body in turn. Doing something physically soothing probably does not amount to a full anxiety management practice but can prove really useful in the moment to help you calm yourself and when used in combination with your cognitive practice.
Guided imagery is a technique where you guide yourself to calmness by mentally picturing a calming image or a series of images. You might picture yourself on a blanket by the beach, walking by a lake, or swinging on a porch swing. You can use single snapshot images or combine images to such an extent that you end up with the equivalent of a short relaxation film that you play for yourself. The first step is to determine what images actually calm you by trying out various images and then, once you've landed on images that have the right calming effect, actually bring them to mind when you are feeling anxious.
"Disidentification" is the core idea of the branch of psychotherapy known as psychosynthesis. Rather than attaching too much significance to a passing thought, feeling, worry, or doubt, you remind yourself that you are larger than and different from all the stray, temporal events that seem so important in the moment. You do this dis-identifying primarily by watching your language. For example, you stop saying "I'm anxious" (or worse, "I'm an anxious person") and begin to say, "I'm having a passing feeling of anxiety." When your show comes down without a sale, instead of saying "I'm ruined" or "I'm finished," you say, "I'm having a passing feeling of pain and disappointment." By making these linguistic changes you fundamentally reduce your experience of anxiety.
Creating and using a ceremony or ritual is a simple but powerful way to reduce your experience of anxiety. For many people lowering the lights, lighting candles, putting on soothing music and in other ways ceremonially creating a calming environment helps significantly. One particularly useful ceremony is one that you create to mark the movement from "ordinary life" to "creating time." You might use an incantation like "I am completely stopping" in a ritual or ceremonial way to help you move from the rush of everyday life to the quiet of your creative work, repeating it a few times so that you actually do stop, grow quiet, and move calmly and effortlessly into the trance of working.
If your mind starts to focus on some anxiety-producing thought or situation or if you feel yourself becoming too wary, watchful and vigilant, all of which are anxiety states, one thing you can do is to consciously turn your attention in another direction and reorient yourself away from your anxious thoughts and toward a more neutral stimulus. For example, instead of focusing on the audience entering the auditorium where you're about to give a talk you might reorient yourself toward the notices on the bulletin board in the green room, paying them just enough attention to take your mind off the sounds of the audience arriving but not so much attention that you lose your sense of what you intend to say.
Anxiety and stress build up in the body and techniques that vent that stress can prove very useful. One discharge technique that actors sometimes learn to employ to reduce their experience of anxiety before a performance is to "silently scream" to make the facial gestures and whole body intentions that go with uttering a good cleansing scream without actually uttering any sound (which would be inappropriate in most settings). Jumping jacks, pushups and strong physical gestures of all sorts can be used to help release the "venom" of stress and anxiety and pass it out of your system.
You can deal with mild anxiety without having to stop everything. But if your anxiety is more serious and especially if it permeates your life, affecting your ability to create, your ability to relate, your ability to dream large, and your very ability to live, then you must take your anxiety-management efforts very seriously, as seriously as you would take your efforts to recover from an addiction. One smart way to pay this kind of serious attention is by using addiction recovery ideas, for example the idea of identifying triggers, those thoughts and situations that trigger anxiety in you. Just as you might "work your program" to stay sober, you work your program to stay calm and centered.
If you intend to create, get ready for anxiety. It is coming and you can handle it beautifully if you use these simple tools and turn yourself into an anxiety management expert.
Once we begin to really fall in love with a creative discipline, we begin the process of identity formation and begin to call ourselves a writer, painter, filmmaker, musician, singer, actor, and so on. As this process unfolds, we begin to add more and more pieces to this identity, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes not. We may add "heavy drinking" and "don't need anybody!" to our Ernest Hemingway version of our writer identity or "manic-depressive" and "highly sensitive" to our Virginia Woolf version of our writer identity, not so much because we are those things but because we somehow think that they belong to a writer's identity.
In this unconscious fashion our identity begins to build — and makes us anxious because we understand in a corner of our consciousness that we are not really that persona we have adopted. At the same time we may have trouble growing into the identity we actually need to nurture, the one that includes personality traits such as discipline, self-direction, self-trust, resiliency, flexibility, concentration, and spontaneity. On the one hand, we build a false self that is made up of cultural constructs and bits of romanticism, and on the other we fail to construct an authentic self that might actually be equal to the rigors of the creative life. This secret knowledge, tucked away in a corner of awareness, that we have not created ourselves in our best image, haunts us and provokes anxiety.
It is never too late to do the sort of personality analysis and personality work that will help you grow into the person you would like to be. This personality work involves identifying false bits of personality to eliminate and desired personality traits to nurture. If you have serious problems, say, with an addiction to alcohol or cocaine, you will need to do full-scale recovery work. Personality work is possible — countless addicts in recovery can attest to that reality — but it is real work that will require your complete attention. Similarly, adding wanted traits like discipline or concentration won't happen overnight or without a struggle. But if you can manage this heroic work, you will become your real self and, in the process, reduce a substantial amount of your anxiety.
When your sense of who you are does not match your sense of who you ought to be, you experience anxiety. Become the person you long to see in the mirror, and match your reality to your vision of your authentic self.
Actively become your best version of yourself by working on your personality. Begin by identifying the traits and qualities you want to shed and the traits and qualities you want to nurture. Choose one from each list, and make a plan for eliminating the one and increasing the other.
I will strip away all the personality bits that are not me, add the traits that I need, and create and stand behind my authentic self.
Choosing provokes anxiety. Even such small matters as choosing which cereal to bring home or which television show to watch can create a little tendril of anxiety. How much more anxiety is generated by trying to choose between spending two years on this novel or on that one! Even more significant, every mark you make as a painter or word you put on the page as a writer is a choice: when you create you are constantly choosing, which means that a certain amount of anxiety will most likely always attend you as you create.
Should you send your character to Paris or New York? Should you add just a little more red there in the corner? Should you include this lovely scene in your screenplay, even though by including it you will be making your screenplay slightly too long? Creative people face these choices continually.
Typically artists are unaware of how much this anxiety of choosing is affecting them and causing them to flee the encounter. Our first line of defense against anxiety is to get away, and when it comes to creating it is all too easy to get away by not showing up at the blank page or the blank canvas. The anxiety of choosing will do that to us.
Accept that you have a million choices to make as a creative person, one after another after another, and that all this choosing is bound to provoke real and significant anxiety. The answer is not to avoid choosing! Rather, you must choose, and you must commit to your choice for exactly as long as it makes sense to commit to it. You must choose between killing off your heroine's lover or sparing him and giving her a happy ending: you can't do nothing, since that means you are not writing your novel! Since the answer is not to avoid choosing, it must be the following one: to master the anxiety that wants to well up as, day after day and year after year, you bravely choose and bravely deal with the consequences of your choices.
The activity of choosing provokes real anxiety, and a creative person is by necessity and by definition someone who must make one choice after another. If you are not aware of this dynamic and if you are not careful, you will avoid your work or leave it too soon so as to avoid the anxiety brought on by choosing.
Explain to yourself that you are obliged to choose and that while you would love to make the right choice each time, what matters more is that you commit to choosing. The only other choice is to not create!
I will choose. It may make me anxious: still, I will make my choices.
Even if you do an excellent job of choosing, and you know that you are committed to this particular novel or this particular suite of paintings, an anxious residue remains as you consciously or unconsciously remember all the other projects that you are not getting to and all your other loves that you are not engaging with as you focus your time and attention on this project. Because you have significant appetites, loves, dreams, and ambitions, part of you wants to do everything, and the stark realization that it is impossible to do everything can cause serious anxiety.
In the beginning you may try to do your version of everything by squeezing in an hour of collage, twenty minutes of poetry, half an hour of songwriting, and fifteen minutes on your novel into the same day. But typically over time you begin to see that this simply doesn't work. Nothing gets finished, and you feel fractured and all over the place. So you decide to commit to one thing — and instantly feel anxious about having put all those other possibilities aside. Part of the anxiety is about having put all your eggs in one basket; part is about your fear that you may not have committed to the right project; and part is the "hungry-mind" anxiety of missing out on all those other possibilities.
The best approach to this dilemma is a cognitive one: remind yourself that you can create for a lifetime, that there is no expiration date on your creativity and no mandatory retirement age, and that, rather than operating from a scarcity model in which you "only" get to do one thing at a time, you will operate from an abundance model instead and picture — and relish — the body of work you get to create by attending to one thing at a time and one thing after another. If this approach happens not to extinguish every drop of anxiety that arises because you feel limited or restricted, deal with the remaining anxiety by using the anxiety-management tools you are learning.
The reality of process prevents us from doing a million things simultaneously. It is hard to attend to more than one major creative project at a time, or a few at most. This means that the other projects we crave tackling (and that may seem more interesting than our current project, which may be slogging along) must remain undone — a reality that we maturely accept, even as it makes us anxious.
Get a clear picture in your mind of what it takes to create a real body of work. Such a body of work is not created piecemeal by doing a touch here and a dribble there: it is only accomplished when you pay attention to one project at a time, project after project.
I will serially commit and deal with the anxiety that arises from not being able to do everything at once.
Performance — which includes the act of coming to the blank page or the blank canvas, as well as standing up in front of an audience — is a classic anxiety producer. It is so potent an anxiety producer because it consists of a great many different fears: the fear of being seen as flawed, the fear of criticism, the fear of disappointing people, the fear of being in power, the fear of embarrassment and humiliation, the fear of imperfection, the fear of loss of control, and even more dramatic fears like the fear of loss of love and approval and the fear of annihilation. Performance anxiety is made up of such a long list of fears that it is no wonder so many people dread performing.
Mild performance anxiety is well-known to each of us. At such times we might experience butterflies in the stomach, the need to urinate, or a sense of disorientation. We are likely to react with more anxiety before important-seeming or difficult-feeling events, perhaps moving from butterflies to a feeling that approaches nausea or from slight disorientation to a feeling of dissociation. Each anxious person will have her own package of physical symptoms and distressing thoughts. As Stephanie Judy explained in Making Music for the Joy of It, "It's as if some Bad Fairy visits each [person] on concert day and bestows the most aggravating symptoms possible: a trembling arm to the strings, a dry mouth to singers, clammy hands to pianists, scant wind to the winds, and a foundering memory to us all."
Psychological symptoms include feelings of confusion, disorientation, powerlessness, and loneliness. Some performers report briefly going deaf or blind. Additional psychological symptoms include the desire to escape or to hide, feelings of impending doom or death, or feelings of unreality. Opera singer Rosa Ponselle explained, "I actually prayed that a car would run me over so that I wouldn't have to die onstage — a prayer I was to repeat before every performance for the next twenty years." The soprano Ann Moffo recalled, "I've never started a performance without thinking, 'It's only the first act — I'll never live to see the final curtain.'" John Bonham, drummer for Led Zeppelin, admitted, "I've got terrible bad nerves all the time. Everybody in the band is the same and each of us has some little thing they do before we go on, like pacing about or lighting a cigarette."
The better a job you do of detaching from outcomes, getting a grip on your negative thoughts, and approaching life philosophically, the more likely it will be that you will be able to perform — in front of the blank canvas, in an interview situation, when networking, and in all the myriad situations in which a creative person performs — without experiencing anxiety. But no matter how mature or evolved you become, some amount of anxiety is likely to remain. In part this must be the case because our performances do matter to us, we do want to excel and represent ourselves well, and we have indeed made large investments of time, energy, and identity. Some anxiety will probably beset you, especially in those last few minutes and seconds before the performance commences, when performance anxiety is typically at its worst. Since anxiety is coming, make sure to practice your anxiety-management techniques and have a few proven techniques at the ready.
Performance anxiety, because it is made up of so many pressing fears, afflicts almost everyone. You can probably only avoid it by not performing: by not writing, by not painting, by not networking, by not getting up onstage. Your best bet is to accept that it is coming and to prepare yourself.
Make sure you have at least one or two anxiety-management techniques in place to deal with performance anxiety. Two of the best in this regard are discharge techniques (such as silently screaming) and reorienting techniques (in which you move your attention away from the performance). Choose your techniques, practice them, and make sure they work by using them in performance situations.
I will perform, even though performing makes me anxious.
Q: You've written many books for creative people. What's your intention with this book?
A: I'm continually surprised by how much anxiety the creative process generates and by how much difficulty creative people have dealing with the many anxieties connected both to the creative process and the creative life. I've written on these matters before but in this book I identify the many different anxieties that can arise — whether it's about going into the unknown, lacking self-confidence, experiencing a crisis of meaning, and so on — and present a useful arsenal of anxiety management tools from which creative people can select. I think it's the most in-depth look at these issues to appear so far.
Q: Why does creating produce so much anxiety?
A: First of all, so much is on the line. For someone who's self-identified as a writer, painter, composer, scientist, inventor, and so on, his identity and ego are wrapped up in how well he creates — and when what we do matters that much, we naturally get anxious. It's one thing to sing in the shower and another thing to agree to sing at your daughter's wedding: so much more feels on the line! Second, the process demands that we don't know until we know: it is a voyage into the darkness of an unknown place where our plot or image or melody resides. People want to know right now, even before they begin: they want a kind of guarantee that they will succeed based on already knowing the outcome. But this guarantee just isn't available — which produces anxiety. There are many other reasons, too — enough to make anyone sweat!
Q: Which situations produce the most anxiety for creative people?
A: It's quite idiosyncratic, though certain situations are notorious for producing anxiety. For most performers, waiting in the wings is much more trying than actually going on. Some painters find the blank canvas intimidating while other painters feel more anxious as they try to decide when and if their painting is actually complete. One writer is made tremendously anxious by plotting while another gets into a panic at the thought of talking with her literary agent. It is quite idiosyncratic but the general rule is, the more important you consider the situation, the more anxiety you'll experience. That big audition, that television interview in front of millions, that conversation with the last editor likely to want your book — the bigger you perceive the moment, the more anxiety gets generated.
Q: Is there some way to avoid creative anxiety?
A: There are certain things you can try but they tend not to produce the results you want. You can decide not to create. You can decide to do formulaic work and keep repeating yourself. You can try to handle the anxiety that arises by drinking too much or by using addictive drugs. All the methods available to avoid anxiety, like fleeing the creative encounter, or ineffectively managing anxiety, like getting drunk, are second-rate. It is much better to embrace the reality of anxiety, rather than to try to deny it, and to learn effective anxiety management tools like the more than twenty I present.
Q: What strategies are available for dealing with creative anxiety?
A: There are really a great many, from taking charge of your basic attitude and becoming a calmer person to doing a better job of appraising situations so that they don't seem so dangerous to using time-honored devices like good luck charms. In Mastering Creative Anxiety I present a menu of twenty-two effective anxiety management tools, enough tools that everyone can find at least one or two that will work well.
Q: Of these many strategies, what are the top two or three?
A:The simplest is to remember to breathe; a few deep cleansing breaths can do wonders for reducing anxiety. The most important anxiety management tool is probably cognitive work, where you change the things you say to yourself, turning anxious thoughts into calmer, more productive thoughts. And creating a lifestyle that supports calmness is also very important: if the way you live your life produces a lot of anxiety, that's a tremendous extra burden on your nervous system.
Q: You say that "getting a grip on your mind" is a key anxiety-management strategy. Can you tell us how we can get a better grip?
A: Changing the way you think is probably the most useful and powerful anxiety management strategy. You can do this straightforwardly by 1) noticing what you are saying to yourself; 2) disputing the self-talk that makes you anxious or that does not serve you; and 3) substituting more affirmative, positive or useful self-talk. This three-step process really works if you will practice it and commit to it — it's the way a person gets a grip on his mind.
Q: You focus a lot on "making meaning" as part of the creative process. How are "making meaning" and anxiety related?
A: The biggest challenge facing a creative person is keeping the belief firmly in place that what she is attempting matters to her. A creative person's main challenge is therefore existential: we easily lose the sense that what we are doing matters, given how many novels or paintings there are in the world, how hard it is to do the work well, how difficult the marketplace feels, and all the rest. Two kinds of anxiety arise with respect to this profound existential issue: the anxiety that arises when we begin to sense that our work doesn't matter to us and the anxiety that arises when we realize that our work matters very much to us (and what a burden all that mattering puts on our shoulders!). When you decide to make meaning these two anxieties confront you: the anxiety that arises when you wonder if you just fooling yourself about your work's importance and the anxiety that arises because your work does matter to you and you want to do it well.
Q: What's the number one thing that a creative person needs to remember with respect to creative anxiety?
A: That it will take real work to deal with it. None of the techniques in the book will be available to you when you need them simply because you read about them and nod your head. You have to practice them and use them. It is not enough to agree that your self-talk is unhelpful and unfriendly. You must notice what you're saying to yourself, dispute those utterances that don't serve you, and actively substitute more affirmative, useful language. It isn't enough to like the idea of guided imagery or to agree that stress reduction makes sense. You must practice your chosen visualization and your chosen stress reduction techniques. If you want the results, you will have to do the work.
Q: Given that anxiety is an inevitable part of the creative process, isn't creating a roller-coaster ride of emotions?
A: Yes, it is! But if you want to create, you have to a buy a ticket for exactly that ride. Rather than strenuously defending yourself against the experience of anxiety, an effort that will prevent you from taking the kinds of risks that the creative process and the creative life demand, you accept that anxiety is part of your early warning system and your genetic inheritance and you learn to deal with anxiety rather than trying to avoid it or deny it. If you strive to acquire a more detached, philosophical attitude, work to get a grip on your mind so that you create less anxiety, and master a few anxiety management tools, you will dramatically reduce your experience of anxiety and effectively handle the portion that remains. But the bottom line is that creating is indeed one wild roller-coaster ride!
Next: Rethinking Depression
©2011 Eric Maisel. All rights reserved.
Eric Maisel is the author of Making Your Creative Mark, Brainstorm, The Van Gogh Blues, and other books on creativity and living a meaning-filled artistic life. ...