Anxiety — a catalyst of creativity

Do you get anxious when you create? Maybe not the jittery, can’t-get-anything-done kind of anxiety. But the kind where your mind starts broadcasting a loop of anyone who’s ever said anything unkind about you and your creative endeavors—from the short story you wrote yesterday to the potholder you made on that stupid metal loom when you were five.

Some people allow anxiety to shut them down completely. They use it as an excuse to stop pushing.

But it’s just the lizard brain doing what it’s done for millennia—warning us of danger. You could be thinking, “Oh my God, there’s a theatre critic in the house tonight.” You get scared, because a bad review could kill the play you wrote. But your lizard brain doesn’t know you mean “kill” in a metaphorical sense. Its job is to keep you out of mortal danger, so it triggers the fight-or-flight instinct. In this case, it’s usually mental flight. Anxiety.

Chelsea Handler on Anxiety & Creativity

Chelsea Handler writes about anxiety
Photo by US Dept. of Education – US Department of Education flickr account, Public Domain

The June edition of InStyle magazine features an essay by Chelsea Handler “on the importance of being anxious.”

Importance? Yep, that’s the subtitle of the article—as if being anxious is a good thing. Handler tales us on a brief tour of things that have made her anxious in her life: When she started out in stand-up, she assumed that once she was better known, the anxiety would fade. It didn’t, but instead of being anxious about her abilities (she managed to pick up some self-confidence along the way), now she was anxious that people who had paid a lot of money to see her would have out-sized expectations about how good she would be.

Eventually she stopped waiting for the magical day when anxiety would disappear and, in her words,

“I grew myself up.”

And in the process, she adopted a more nuanced—dare I say mature?—view of anxiety:

“Anxiety doesn’t have to be such a dirty word. It can be there for us to harness and turn into something fierce. I also feel strong when I’m stressed, because I know I have the drive to push through it and come out on the other side. I know I can flip that worry into something powerful.”

Imagine feeling strong and stressed at the same time. Imagine knowing you could use anxiety to create “something powerful.”

Chandler continues:

“I still get anxiety about things I have to do professionally, and I’m pretty sure I always will. Knowing that’s part of the process helps me focus not on the worry itself but on the sense of accomplishment I’ll feel afterward.”

Yes, I added the emphasis. Many people think they have to conquer their anxiety before they can create. And so—guess what?—they never create. That’s one of the causes of that fictional affliction people call writer’s block.

Flip it

Handler reframes anxiety as just another part of the creative process. Create first. Use the anxiety not as a block but as a catalyst. Push past the fear as Handler does, recognizing

“Even if you have something you’re dreading, that feeling will not last forever….And if you push past the fear, you’ve accomplished something and you’re a stud again.”

Not exactly how I would have phrased it. But sure, what the hell. Be a stud. Elbow your way right past the fear and create.


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Also published on Medium.

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