On Anxiety, Being an Artist, and Disorder

hanuka comic
by Asuf Hanaka A look at viral ideas/art. Appropriate for the metaphor he uses for the idea itself.

Last night I read an article in the Atlantic written by a research psychiatrist whose previous career was as a Ph.D in literature, teaching Renaissance literature. She had spent years studying both mental illness and creativity. It’s titled “Secrets of the Creative Brain” (I link to it at the bottom of this article). The multiple studies cited in the article supported, glaringly, two pretty well established generalizations about artists and other highly creative people.

1) They have a high prevalence of mental health issues, with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or some combination of the three being the most prevalent.

2) There is some kind of connection between this mental disorder and the creative mind.

No kidding.

This was, in fact, a really heartening thing to read, because as an artist I know SO MANY people who struggle with this stuff, and to see science that supports something we’ve talked about  for some time somehow makes me feel more…normal.

Why is this? Because I have struggled with mental flailing, as I like to call it, my whole life, and only in recent years have I been able to put the name “anxiety” on it. I consider my own situation to be on the lighter end of such disorders, and I think that it is not a unique experience, but a degree of something that everyone experiences from time to time. 

The thing I appreciate most about the article is its conclusion, that sums up as “sometimes creative people make remarkable connections, and when they are real, we call them geniuses. Sometimes creative people make remarkable connections, and when they are not real, we call them madmen.”

And that’s it in a nutshell.

This is a good summation, though it does not capture the experience of it.

I’ve known a lot of moments in my work as an artist where I get kind of “swept away.” It’s elating, to get into that zone, it’s like time has sped up and slowed down at the same time and you’re seeing all these clear connections, and if you hit an obstacle you just move to the side and the path reveals itself to you. For me, choreographing a fight or scene can be like that…just watch the moves again from a different angle and the next movement or moment suddenly pops into your head…or the next TWELVE moves, or the whole strategic scope of the scene in the context of the play within the context of history, and you have to log that revelation somewhere so you don’t forget it and you can go on with rehearsal (though you have momentary doubts that everyone else hasn’t already figured that out while you were blundering in the dark).

The same thing can happen working as an actor…we rehearse through the scene, and in the midst of action, some moment of breath tells you that the NEXT thing must come sooner, or harder, or lightly, or in a haze of joy, moods and actions swirl around inside you like water waiting to come out of a firehose and you can steer that release ever so slightly.

Or writing. It’s like the words on the page disappear, and the world inside your head is just flowing out of your hands like a waterfall. The cell walls between image and expression become porous and you stop seeing a difference between grammar, structure, vocabulary, and the sensations spurring their use.

Like Nietzsche said, it’s like riding a tiger.

Because it can go the other way. Some of my best ideas as a writer, director, choreographer, actor, any of them…come to me as I’m falling asleep. And my worst moments of anxiety usually happen as I’m waking up, and if its 3am and I happen to be waking, well I can write off sleep for a little while.

Heavy anxiety is like taking a superpower like the Human Torch, that lets you fly and be on fire and stuff, and then suddenly the fire on your skin actually hurts and you’re flying blindly through a parking garage. A

(Another appropriate moment to point out that this is not an advice column. Don’t set yourself on fire and fly blindly through a parking garage. Just don’t.)

It took me years to realize that the same thing in my brain that lets me dive deep into a story and get immersed in the details of a world or moment also is the same thing that lets me dive deep down the rabbit hole of “what if the bad thing happens.”

It seems that the science is supporting this — that if something in a particular brain is turned up a few notches, it can have both good and bad effects. Sometimes very good. Sometimes very, very bad.

I’ve only had a couple moments in my adult life when anxiety was truly debilitating, and it only lasted for a little while…perhaps several minutes. But that taste of an anxiety attack was enough to wake me up to the fact that there’s this thing that needs dealing with. I’m lucky, because some people have much more severe anxiety attacks all the time. Other artists deal with depression or bipolar disorder, and while anxiety often comes hand in hand with one or the other, I’ve been spared. While what-if scenarios and near-crippling doubt will occasionally slow me down, those periods inevitably pass and I usually am able to find a rabbit hole that I’m excited about to take me somewhere cool.


It brings up another connection, one about artists and ambition. I think it is sometimes easy for artists to pursue something difficult and creative, not because of a remarkable bravery (though that is often required) but because it’s just easy for the creative mind to imagine a path towards fantastic, positive outcome. Everyone has this ability, but the more creative folks just have more of a tendency towards it. And the ability to see the outcome, and imagine the many paths to get there, makes it less risky. Often, I think, we can FEEL a path before we can even describe it.

But it works the other way too. In a bad way. The bad outcomes are just as easy to conjure, and even the fact that a good path is felt but not seen can be incredibly worrisome, because one part of you is speaking, saying “the path is there, just walk forward and keep your hands in front of you” and every time that part of you takes a breath, another part of you steps in and screams “ITS TERRIBLY DARK AND MONSTERS WILL EAT YOUR HANDS!!!”

Anxious Kitty
Obligatory Internet Kitty Picture. Kitty is anxious.

If it sounds schizophrenic, maybe it is. The voices and personas we conjure in order to do our work, in order to live our lives, sometimes get real mean. I think everyone deals with the world in differing personas, with different ideas and doubts appearing like voices. Just for some people those voices get way more substantiated, and start to steal the function of other parts of the brain (no I don’t hear voices, but the idea-world is kind of like voices, so I compare them).

Now, this is all just my experience, and honestly I don’t think its that bad. I’ve known people dealing with all three of the big ones (anxiety, depression, bipolar) to degrees that are much higher than what I have to manage.

When I was a kid, I would occasionally get panic attacks. I can’t even remember what that entailed, I just remember a sharp sensation of fear (I always see a blue knife when I try to catalogue that sensation…) and a period where I was just deathly afraid that something had happened to my mom or dad or someone or something important. But I grew out of it…sort of. I also learned some ways to deal with it — maybe a combination of my developing brain and developing mental strategies at the same time? 

Now, I’m not offering a solution to anyone dealing with mood disorders. I’m actually just pointing out that I’m lucky enough to have found something at an early age that still works for me, though I’m far from having mastered or eliminated my own anxiety…I usually have to take some sort of action either to deal with the problem I’m worrying about or just to go down a more positive rabbit-hole. Meditating, stepping back, prayer, turning to God helps me to put my feet back on the ground so I can get moving again.  

But here’s the thing, I don’t WANT to get rid of it entirely, because I know that that ability to go down rabbit holes is also like a superpower. Getting into the creative space is a phenomenal experience, and you often come out of it having made something really good!

Now this is not to condone the idea of people dealing with serious mental illness avoiding treatment because of occasionally intense creative periods or upswings of elation. But to those who don’t deal with any of these (and I think most humans have dealt with SOME form at some point in their life, or are oblivious to it, or avoid naming it…) it might explain WHY some people avoid treatment — they want to get rid of the problem but the problem is tied deeply to the very thing that makes them special. We might even identify it as actually being the thing that makes us special, and I’m not qualified to speak about that beyond my own experience. 

For me, there has always been a process of learning to identify when I’m heading into the oblivion of worry versus the galaxy of wonder, and it will never fully go away, I think. Creativity takes multiple kinds of thinking: one is the ability to have all the ideas, but another is the ability to identify the right idea and then take action on it. It is a choice to do all the gritty work that the “aha” idea carries with it. It’s sifting through the tremendous disorder of ideas that are bubbling up all the time and choosing the good ones…then having the perseverance to go back to the disorderly tar pit and look for another one when the first one fails. You get better, over time, at choosing ideas that are not dark-rabbit-holes, or maybe better at backing out of the dark holes, but that doesn’t make them not there. And there’s a whole neuro-biological element that I can’t even begin to explain. 

My point is, I guess, that the research here is important, and that artists and other creative types ought to be aware that their brains work a little differently, but they’re not alone in the vast variety of amazing, creative, interesting human brains out there. 

And that there’s smart people out there who want to help if someone does struggle on a deep level with this stuff. 

I highly recommend reading the article at the Atlantic, especially if you’re a creative type and want to feel a little less weird about yourself. http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/06/secrets-of-the-creative-brain/372299/

In conclusion, a kitten. 

Rolling kitty
I don’t make stuff I BREAK stuff!

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