5 Steps to Tackle Your Creative Anxiety

09 July 2015 Sketchee 0 Comments

You've likely experienced anxiety and stress while trying to be creative. Anxiety is our natural fear response. You've heard of our flight or fight reaction. Flight is our instinct to avoidance, escape, and even procrastination. Fight is directly tackling a problem and anguishing over the problem until we find a direct solution. Psychologists also say we have a third fear response: freezing which is playing dead, ignoring the problem, denial. All three of our natural responses are sometimes appropriate. Why are we afraid to be creative? 

My personal experience with social anxiety disorder gives me some insight on how this panic response works and how to deal with it. Social anxiety or social phobia is the fear of judgment. It could be self judgement or judgement by others. I remember waking up late for an important meeting with my university where I had recently graduated. I was to present my portfolio as a graphic designer and share some ideas for their university magazine. I wanted to really impress them with my work and thoughts. I was so focused on what they would think if I was late. The panic attack that I felt when I realized I woke up late was this intense fear response.

My body was filled with adrenaline and other fear hormones. Attempting to make it to the meeting, I tried to get up and at first struggled to move. Once I recognized that this was a fear response, I was able to calm myself down. Making it to the meeting, I nailed it and the staff was very impressed with my insights. Still, ten years later what I mostly remember was that extreme panic attack.

From that experience, behavior therapy and research, I've learned so much about how to manage stress that I'd love to share with you:

Step 1: Identifying your bad habits

What pattern do you want to change? To understand stress, you really have to understand what thoughts specifically are you stressed about. Identify your thoughts, anxious thinking and worry. Common thinking errors include all or nothing, over generalizing, catastrophizing, exaggerating, negativity, jumping to conclusions, blame, and overly rigid rules. Do you identify with any of these? Take creative inspiration from these thoughts. Write, draw, scribble all of the thoughts that make you anxious when you're trying to create. Embrace them as a normal part of your creative process. There aren't "good" or "bad" thoughts.

Step 2: Empowerment

Identify what you can control. Accept what you can't control by identifying who or what could possibly be responsible and in control of those thoughts: leave those elements to fate, the universe, a higher power, or just to the other people who are better equipped. Whatever happens is what happens.

Identify and focus on what you can control. What you can control is putting marks on paper, the time you set aside, your own actions, and even how you respond to your own thoughts. Another chance to look to your scrap paper or sketchbook and visualize and write down these ideas. Stick figures or words or little comics.

Creativity itself has been shown to reduce stress. Part of reducing our stress reaction is confronting the feeling and then learning to identify the activity as not dangerous. The more you create, the less you'll associate your work with fear. The fear is really reaction to new or unfamiliar. Imagine a wild animal seeing a new or unfamiliar experience, it wouldn't know whether it was dangerous or not.

Step 3: Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the state of being more aware and focusing on awareness itself. Various studies have shown that mindfulness reduces anxiety and depression. Review your notes and your experience without judgement. Note that anxious behaviors aren't really good or bad/ Everyone thinks that way sometimes. By identifying our habits and being aware, we can start to change our reactions.

Mindfulness has also been shown to help directly with being more creative, generating new ideas, and with imaginative thinking.

Step 4: Goals and Next Step

Imagine how you’d want to react or think. When you jump to conclusions, for example, how would you want to respond? I’d want to laugh at my initial conclusion as a silly joke I tell myself. Then come up with a few alternate conclusions. The first few might exaggerate the idea even more absurdly. Then come up with reasonable versions. To come up with the reasonable version, ask "What is the simplest next step?"

In the answer, try the phrase "It'll help if I..." If you have a "bad drawing", the next step is to identify the part that doesn't look quite right, then make adjustments. Rather than "I never will be able to draw arms!!" The next step is: the arm isn't drawn quite right, it'll help to sketch a few quick arms with the mirror on scrap to practice, then revisit this drawing with what I learned."

Having goals about compassion and self image have been shown to reduce anxiety. The consistency of having regular goals increased the effects in the college students who were studied. Creating goals about how your actions create compassion for others and for yourself will help you be more creative and less afraid.

Step 5: Learning Experiences

Note the results of your previous negative thoughts. Maybe you planned to get more done and just ended up procrastinating and judged yourself for doing it, just creating even more anxiety when you think about trying again. Let’s take that experience as just a learning experiment. Admitting what went wrong, forgiving ourselves, deciding we can try again and that any effort is a good one.

Remember, we are at least in part creatures of instincts. Fear is a normal emotion and part of our design that allows us to learn and grow. Naturally, instincts affect our behavior. To change how these instincts identify our behavior, we first need to notice and become aware of those instincts on some level. Awareness leads to a conscious recognition of choice. Rather than instincts directing behavior, we now practice letting our fear response trigger our awareness. From that awareness, we can make choices and create and imagine that much better. Thank you for hearing my thoughts and about my story. How have you tackled your creative anxiety and stress?

Brian E. Young helps others be more imaginative as an artist and graphic designer in Baltimore, Maryland and by answering your creativity questions on the The Uncanny Creativity Podcast.


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