No, really, I like writing...
February 27, 2015 4:30 PM   Subscribe

Even after my anxiety has decreased significantly, creative activity of any kind still makes me extremely anxious. These things used to be very interesting and fulfilling, and now I can't even think about them on a regular basis without worrying excessively. How can I get rid of this?

I started on Zoloft a while back, and it has helped me immensely. It's not 100% yet, but I definitely worry much less than I did a few months (or even weeks) ago. The decrease in anxiety has allowed me to start meditating every day and applying mindfulness whenever worries do arise.

I was hoping that this would allow me to reclaim my interest in poetry, classical music, etc. For a while I was forcing myself to do something for an hour every day, but the anxiety associated with having that hanging over me every day and with not always doing exactly 60 minutes of focused work led me to drop it. For a couple of weeks now I haven't been doing any writing or composing at all.

I am now able to recognize that there's no reason why I would need to regularly write or compose at this time. And I am considering the possibility that I need to work on self-cultivation, eliminating any residual anxiety, and just getting back to enjoying life before I start to "get back into it". But it's kind of frustrating that I can't, because I know that these are the things that I am most interested in and that I have found them fulfilling in the past; it's just that the immense amount of worry and mental preparation required to reach that point negates its value.

So, my question is this: How can I get back to the point where creative activity is inherently fulfilling and doesn't cause anxiety?

Thanks in advance.
posted by myitkyina to Human Relations (11 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Read poetry. Listen to music. Let them fill you up.
posted by tomboko at 4:38 PM on February 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

You may find it helps to release yourself from the expectation of producing anything. Just practice the mechanics: write out a poem you know and love longhand (or even just random words), and be as conscious and mindful of the process of doing it: the sound of the pen, the space between the letters, and so on. If you find yourself inspired to write something else, so be it, but if not, you've still had a relaxing time with some poetry you like.
posted by thegears at 4:58 PM on February 27, 2015 [4 favorites]

I too have anxiety that makes it near impossible at times to write or do anything creative.

The only thing that has ever worked for me is to give myself permission to sit down and write the worst shit ever. Just accept that you're not going to like anything you write during a first draft (or even your second draft) and keep writing anyway. No matter what. Don't "edit in your head", don't stop and think about whether or not you should type it out before you do, don't let your ego intervene. Just write. Have fun with it; laugh if you think some of what you're writing is silly at the moment. Wading through oceans and oceans of excess is a part of the writing process.

For me, editing is for the next day. After you've had time to sleep on it and come back to it with fresh eyes and a fresh mind. When you get anxious about editing, remember that it is a process - one that can and should take time. Some of the best published writing first went through hundreds of drafts and edits.

I also recommend using the Pomodoro technique to make things like "writing time" and "editing time" more structured and approachable. Give yourself twenty minutes to write, then take a five minute break. Or whatever may work for you. Sometimes when I'm too afraid to write, telling myself "Eh, it's only twenty minutes and then can I go do [whatever fun/stress-relieving thing]" makes it seem far less intimidating.

Something else I used to do was write a haiku a day - for an entire year. I kept an online journal that was only really read by a small handful of my friends (having a public audience may not help with your anxiety if judgment from others is a big concern, but these were long time friends who I didn't worry about feeling judged by - YMMV), which kept me honest - they expected a haiku a day, so I had to deliver.
posted by nightrecordings at 5:14 PM on February 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

Try revisiting your favorite works of art. Personally, re-reading The Master and Margarita, reminiscing the experience of seeing The River on Broadway, or listening to the piano version of Somewhere My Love - among others - never fail to reignite inspiration, remind me why I have artistic ambitions, and reaffirm that I aspire to achieve what these other artists have... something honest, alive, deeply human.

I also recommend finding a writing/composing/etc buddy that you can meet with regularly to work on your art--whether it's to bounce off ideas or work individually on your own projects in silence. It maintains momentum, keeps you accountable, and you have someone who can relate to the pains of the creative process.

Best of luck!
posted by tackypink at 5:58 PM on February 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

So, my question is this: How can I get back to the point where creative activity is inherently fulfilling and doesn't cause anxiety?

I think that this question rests on a premise that is in itself conducive to anxiety.

Since you're applying mindfulness, and meditating, let me talk about it in those terms. You know how, when you are learning how anxiety works in mindfulness, one of the first big lessons is that a lot of our distress comes from fighting the anxiety? Like, it's the very attempt to treat anxiety as a problem to be solved, that can raise even more anxiety, because we're using the wrong set of mental tools to deal with it?

Our language is all wrapped up in that problem-solving mode. We want to eliminate anxiety. We want to treat it like a broken chair (or maybe the metaphor is misplaced there, maybe we treat ourselves like the broken chairs, and seek to repair ourselves). But why? Because we feel like it is unbearable. Because it gets in the way of the things we would like to do. It blocks creative endeavor, it turns creation into drudgery and saps our joy.

But we know that is not true. It's not the case that anxiety is unbearable; our practice of mindfulness is trying to teach us how to bear it, how to observe it, how to just kind of hold on to it without doing a lot of judging and without a lot of questioning ourselves (why am I this way? how did I get here? why can't I make this stop so I can get back to the things I like to do?). And we know that there is a great deal of art, literature and music that deals directly with anxiety, so we could even go so far as to say that rather than getting in the way of creative endeavor, it might actually--with time, maybe not right away--inspire a work.

Okay, so that is a lot of kind of vague talk, let me get specific. My own creativity is profoundly connected to, influenced by, halted because of, a form of anxiety that I characterize as "gargoyles": People whose opinions I imagine, whose scrutiny I feel and feel that I cannot bear. An author who said a snarky thing in an interview, and suddenly I feel as though his words might as well have been aimed at me for how personally I take them. People who have rolled their eyes at me before, the memory of them, almost the ghost of them, standing behind me, rolling their eyes as I struggle through another sentence, feeling with every keypress the weight of increasing failure. Look at him! Look at the cliche. And finally, with exhaustion, I close the story or the book or the poem or the drawing pad and allow it to gather dust on the shelf while I try to escape the pain of their awful scrutiny. Sometimes I buy a new writing book, as though learning a technique were the issue, rather than the anxiety.

But I understand that it's not quite that "anxiety is the issue." It is not quite true to say that "anxiety is stopping me from this creative thing I want to do." It's a little more true to say that "my reaction to the anxiety is keeping me too busy to create." My attention is drawn away from creation and towards solution. My mind tries to frame a series of steps to take to escape this burden, to solve it.

I'm trying to be an artist and my mind is trying to be a project manager at work. "C'mon, we know the first step to solving a problem is digging deep into the root cause! So let's find out why this is happening!" And so I ask myself, why am I so anxious? Why? And because this is obviously a state I don't want, my project manager is also judging, grading: What is wrong with you that you are so anxious? And once the mind poses these questions, what can I possibly do with them? I go around in circles, asking, asking, stabbing out at answers that don't answer, asking again.

And this is actually why I like mindfulness so much. Because what if it's not a problem to be solved? What if anxiety is more like the weather, more like a storm, its causes obscure, its bombast and downpour uncomfortable, but inherently temporary and something one can only wait through, watching it as it happens? What if I'm not responsible for it? What if I'm not responsible for the cause or the cure? What if the anxiety I feel as I write a word on an empty page is just something to be observed? Can I watch it? What does it make my body feel like? Can I feel it in my hands? In my toes, my lips? Do I hear the thoughts cascading in my head? Can I listen to those thoughts--not engaging in them, not trying to answer the questions they pose, but just sort of eavesdrop? Can I feel inside me the kind of impulses that arise? What does this feeling make me feel like doing? And can I observe all this without putting myself down? Without having a big goal to it, not striving to be Anxiety Free So I Can Write Again, just watching it?

And if art is an expression of emotion, can I even value my anxiety? Maybe not love it, sure, certainly not right now, but can I at least hold, as a possibility, that what I feel is not only okay, but potentially something that can add richness to my work, if I let it, if I treat it as part of my humanity-needing-expression rather than the dry, lifeless approach of a fix to something broken?

I mean, I'm sorry that I don't have a step by step answer to give you that will cure your anxiety and let you work again. I wish it were that simple, but I don't believe it is. But I think that you can survive, and I think that you can work, and I think you're honestly on the right path to letting yourself be creative again, without having to shed anything of yourself to get there.
posted by mittens at 6:08 PM on February 27, 2015 [23 favorites]

I've been going through something similar. It's backing off a bit thanks to therapy. We do a lot of talk, plus my therapst uses a technique called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) that's just hella helpful for anxiety.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 7:12 PM on February 27, 2015

If you wait til your anxiety is under control before you do your creative stuff, you might be waiting a *long* time. Maybe even the rest of your life.

My advice is do your creative stuff anyway, anxious or not. You may even find (as I did) that your anxiety adds something special to your creative projects!
posted by jasper411 at 11:33 PM on February 27, 2015

In addition to the above advice, one thing to keep in mind is that associating anxiety with a particular activity actually becomes a kind of habit over time. Now that you are being treated and on medication, you may also have to consciously work on training yourself out of feeling that anxiety associated with creative work.

What I mean is this: when I went through a horrific, traumatic, multi-year awful period of my life, I naturally reacted with anxiety and depression despite not normally being an anxious and depressed person. When I began to emerge from the circumstances that put me in that state, it was almost as though the anxiety and depression had become a habit of mind. I would wake up feeling vaguely worried and anxious even though there was much less reason to feel that way. I really had to do some self-talk to remind myself of this, and consciously adjust my thoughts to a less negative tenor. Eventually I mostly got back to being my resilient and not-depressed-and-anxious self, but it took a while. I can imagine that this would be even more challenging for someone prone to anxiety.

One of the challenges for me was getting back to things I loved. Consumed with anxiety, even movies and books were mostly too challenging to provide escape; I needed even more mindless activities, like surfing the internet and interminable games of solitaire. Again, even as I got better, I had to work really hard to put new habits in place.

I guess what I'm saying here is that I think that what you are talking about is something a bit more insidious than anxiety that normally accompanies creative work--something that is more chronic than acute, if you will. So, maybe it sounds dumb, but it worked for me: start by just talking to yourself about the anxiety and reminding yourself that you can let go of it. And don't try to start with a full 60 minutes! Do ten minutes or even five. It may not seem like "enough," but it's ten or five minutes more than you were doing.

Hope this is helpful and not too wildly off the mark!
posted by tiger tiger at 12:51 AM on February 28, 2015 [4 favorites]

Like nightrecordings says, it's very important to be let yourself "be crap". If you're anything like me, the anxiety is bound up in a kind of perfectionism. I criticise my work as I go along, and can easily dissolve into actual tears and panic if the work on the page fails to meet my standards. I can get this way over doodling. So it's important to me to remember to cut off that inner critic and just do some work and find value in the doing even if the end result seems desultory to me. The process is important, not the outcome. Here's some quotes I try and keep in mind to help me out:

"No writing is wasted. Did you know that sourdough from San Francisco is leavened partly by a bacteria called lactobacillus sanfrancisensis? It is native to the soil there, and does not do well elsewhere. But any kitchen can become an ecosystem. If you bake a lot, your kitchen will become a happy home to wild yeasts, and all your bread will taste better. Even a failed loaf is not wasted. Likewise, cheese makers wash the dairy floor with whey. Tomato gardeners compost with rotten tomatoes. No writing is wasted: the words you can’t put in your book can wash the floor, live in the soil, lurk around in the air. They will make the next words better.”
— Erin Bow

“You have to surrender to your mediocrity, and just write. Because it’s hard, really hard, to write even a crappy book. But it’s better to write a book that kind of sucks rather than no book at all, as you wait around to magically become Faulkner. No one is going to write your book for you and you can’t write anybody’s book but your own.”
—Cheryl Strayed

This blog post by artist Marian Churchland

Also anything Lynda Barry has ever said or written.
posted by mymbleth at 1:51 AM on February 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm going to approach this a bit differently that the rest, who gave great advice.
I want to propose that who you were without Zoloft is a different person than who you are now with Zoloft.
Those things that you found interesting, entertaining and engaging - poetry, classical music, etc. - in the past may not be as engaging now.

I would like for you to be passive and open to new things. As Bruce Lee says "Be like water, my friend."

As you go through and explore this new life, on this new path, be open to a new music, a new literature, a new book, a new hobby, a new way to see and approach this new life. One without anxiety, without shame, without guilt, with out any sort of preconceived notions of who you are supposed to be.

The Zoloft is there to help you relax; thinking that you are supposed to be doing something or should be doing something is counterintuitive to that state of relaxation.

Move forward relaxed, calm, with a state of equanimity and peace.
I wish you the best.
posted by John Kennedy Toole Box at 6:25 AM on February 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure if fear of failure, fear of being really BAD, is part of the issue for you, but if it is, you should check out this book by Hillary Rettig. It's about the underlying issue of perfectionism and how it gets in the way, and how to get past it. This may not be your issue, but if it is, this book is genius. She's so kind and no-nonsense. I'm working with it right now as I've suddenly seized up on a big project I'm working on.
posted by swheatie at 2:46 PM on February 28, 2015

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