(noun) an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, painful, or threatening.
FEAR is an emotion all of us have experienced. It may have merely brushed, or paralyzed, or motivated, or crippled us, but it has touched us all at some point in our lives. We’re born with it as a built-in survival mechanism, one that kept our ancestors from being eaten by sabre-tooth tigers or falling to their death by leaping off of clifftops. However, fear can sometimes get out of hand, and start controlling our daily lives and ambitions.
Many of us (at least 18% of the US population according to the ADAA) have been (or are being) negatively affected by an over-active fear response, which happens when fear extends beyond its proper place in our minds and starts to go haywire. This is generally known as anxiety. There are a many different forms that anxiety takes, including Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Disorder, OCD, and PTSD, among others. (More on these later.)
Anxiety can be absolutely paralyzing, freezing your brain and stopping up creativity. It may be so overwhelming that it forces you to grind to a halt in your life or creative endeavors. It may just vibrate in the back of your mind constantly, consuming energy and leaving you exhausted and feeling like you are only able to operate at 50% capacity in most areas of life.
Fortunately, anxiety and many forms of excess fear can be effectively managed; it is one of the most treatable psychological disorders. There are many ways that anxiety may be addressed, reduced, and overcome as a hurdle to productivity and creativity. Humans have the incredible ability to heal internally and externally, from changing thought processes to incorporating healthy physical habits that go a long ways to expelling mental health pathologies.
Anxiety is a maladaptive form of fear; it is a twisted up variation of a critical mental response. For the purpose of this article, we’ll define “FEAR” as the primary, survival instinct that is built into us as a protective mechanism, and “ANXIETY” as the maladaptive form of that instinct. As noted above, fear is a normal and necessary emotional and physical response for creatures who live in a world where jumping off a cliff will very probably result in being no longer alive. Fear usually has a specific, focused subject. Anxiety, however, is often unfocused, future-oriented, and will run down rabbit trails of imagination, constructing elaborate stories in which everything bad just gets worse and worse. As Sigmund Freud described, “Anxiety relates to the state itself, and disregards the object that elicits it, whereas fear draws attention precisely to the object.”
Both Søren Kierkegaard and Sigmund Freud, influential thinkers in the world of psychology, believed that anxiety was a part of normal human experience. Kierkegaard believed that it was an essential aspect of human life, positing that, “Whoever is educated by anxiety is educated by possibility.” While anxiety certainly may provide a great range of possibilities, sometimes the possibilities provided induce so much worry, that they cease to be productive. It may be a fundamental aspect of human nature, but for some people it has debilitating consequences.
The chief pathology of anxiety is chronic worry. When one is constantly worrying, so much mental capacity is devoted to the worry, that one’s ability to perform normal tasks efficiently and effectively is decreased. Working memory is decreased, and it becomes harder to keep track of all the things that make up normal, everyday life. Anxiety can affect the body physically as well, causing reactions such as nausea, panic symptoms (shortness of breath, faintness, chills), or blood pressure changes.
Humans possess the ability to think consciously about our concept of “self”; a self that can be projected forward in time, and that can project a future for those things or beings whom we are attached to as it relates to that self. This is an amazing ability that allows us to invent a thousand different experiences before we physically experience a single one. It allows us to imagine futures for other people or things connected to our self, and extrapolate the impact of those futures on a network of things that affect our being. When anxiety kicks in, consciousness can construct and extrapolate increasingly negative scenarios, coming up with an infinite number of possibilities that threaten pain or discomfort. However, it is this very consciousness that holds the key to addressing anxiety, reeling in the imagination and creating constructive and healthy future concepts to replace the fearful ones.
Humans are created to evolve. We are constantly changing, absorbing, and growing. Sometimes that means we absorb negative tendencies like anxiety, but fortunately it means that we can also evolve out of negativity, beyond it, growing into more positive and healthy people. It is inherent to the concepts of positivity and negativity that they cannot exist in the same place; as opposites, one evicts the other. Positivity slowly but surely assumes the space that negativity formerly occupied, pushing it out and leaving no room for it. Examples of positivity include self-care, affirmation, and self-acceptance.
It’s important to realize that anxiety is an actual disorder, and should be taken seriously. It isn’t just personal stupidity, nor is it a simple failure of will. It’s easy to get frustrated and shame ourselves for our perceived “weakness” when anxiety kicks in and causes problems, but that doesn’t actually fix the anxiety (it usually makes it worse!) A disorder isn’t a comprehensive label encompassing our identity – it’s just a word that we can use to understand what is going wrong, and it helps lead to solutions. It’s also important to realize that no two people struggle in exactly the same way; we are each remarkably unique, and our challenges will be as well. However, there is a degree of commonality to the way many people wrestle with anxiety in its different forms, and those commonalities have been sorted into a few different categories below:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): people who suffer from generalized anxiety (worry, nervousness, apprehension, dread) tend not to worry so much about specific things like spiders, or elevators, or social situations – they just worry, constantly. Generalized anxiety usually exhibits in constant, uncontrollable worry about life situations (relationships, work, health, finance) to the point where it interferes with the functions of everyday life.
- Panic Disorder: a disorder that can be debilitating, panic disorder is characterized by intense panic attacks, which compels a great deal of preoccupation with avoiding the cause of these attacks. Panic attacks may cause shortness of breath, heart palpitations, an intense fear of losing control, nausea, and trembling. This disorder can interfere with daily life as one tries to avoid the situations that may cause attacks.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): a disorder in which people experience obsessions (intrusive and unwanted thoughts, images and urges that cause anxiety) and compulsions (behaviors that a person feels compelled to do in order to alleviate anxiety or suppress the intrusive thoughts). There isn’t always a consciously logical connection between the thoughts and the compulsions that are being used to alleviate them. The compulsions are often extremely hard to resist and often interfere with daily functions.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): characterized by flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive memories, PTSD often manifests after being exposed to a traumatic event (violence, natural disaster, or other life-threatening events.) It can be incredibly debilitating and seriously affect relationships and daily life.
There are three ways in which a psychological disorder or mental health state may be understood and addressed:
- Language: what one verbally communicates about how they are feeling or perceiving their situation
- Behavior: how one acts or reacts to how they feel, such as by escaping in order to cope, or with expressions of anger or intense emotion
- Physiological reaction: physical reactions such as an increase in blood pressure, nausea, changes in brain chemistry
These elements all combine to draw a picture of what is happening, and why. In order to understand how this output explains an internal state, it is helpful to assess each one as part of a whole, looking at the how we express our internal state. A therapist is a helpful partner on the journey towards mental health, and they are trained to use these factors to understand each person’s mental state and provide resources for healing and building strength.
One of the most impactful ways to push back anxiety is through self-care. “Self-care” means what it sounds like; caring for yourself. This starts with valuing yourself enough to infuse little (and then big) changes into your life that will take care of yourself.
Think of a house plant. Or a dog. Or a cat. (Preferably something you value and love.) What happens to this thing when care for it ceases? It dies. This is one of the facts of the universe. What happens to humans when care for them ceases? They die. You are a human. So what happens when you stop caring for yourself? Sometimes this manifests in a series of small deaths inside of ourselves, deceptively hidden under layers of justification that we accumulate like dirt.
Self care may actualize in different forms for different people. It starts with some careful and realistic self-examination, in order to understand what applies stress in your life, and what triggers your anxiety. This has to be an honest examination, without judgement towards yourself. It’s so easy to find a trigger for anxiety and start beating yourself up about it, because it seems stupid or insignificant.
- Recognize and identify anxiety triggers. For example, notice that the noise and chaos at a party is increasing your heart rate and creating a sense of unease.
- Act to care for yourself once you recognize a trigger. If you suffer from social anxiety, it could be helpful to step away from the crowd at a party to give yourself a mental and physical break.
- Remove negative self-judgement or shame associated with anxiety. Don’t let yourself think that you are silly because you feel anxious!
- Talk to a therapist. An unbiased, third-person perspective can be helpful to understand emotions and interpret reactive responses while pinpointing areas that could benefit from growth.
- Maintain healthy boundaries. Learn to listen to and accommodate for your body’s physical responses to stimuli.
- Cultivate healthy human relationships. Meaningful interactions are a basic need and required for optimal health.
- Eat healthy foods. Healthy fats such as avocados and nuts power your brain, while probiotics and gut-optimizing foods like fermented vegetables fuel neurotransmitters like seratonin and dopamine.
- Take vitamins. B-complex vitamins have been known to assist in reducing anxiety, and magnesium reduces stress hormones.
- Create a healthy circadian rhythm. Sleep and eat at consistent times throughout the day.
- Exercise. When your heart rate increases, your body secretes endorphins, which are hormones that reduce pain and elevate your mood. This provides a more level playing field from which to tackle negative thoughts.
- Practice calming routines. For some, practicing yoga and meditation can help refocus the mind while calming the body.
I have a tendency to find going to the grocery store to be stressful and anxiety-inducing. For a mixture of reasons, I often am anxious to the point of nausea at the thought of interacting with a cashier or deli counter attendant. This is especially true after a long workday when I am low on mental, emotional, and physical energy.
I used to feel like an idiot for this anxiety trigger, but allowing myself to feel stupid only makes things worse. My solution? When I’m feeling this anxiety creep up and I need to make a trip to the grocery store, I drive a mile or two further to a store with self-checkout. This action of self-care accomplishes two things: the successful completion of a necessary task (getting groceries), and the reduction of stress caused by my anxiety.
If this example of self-care is specific and somewhat peculiar, just know that some of your self-care tactics may also be specific and seem a little odd. That’s ok! You are unique and individual person, and your solutions will be just as unique as yourself.
To the artist, anxiety can obliterate productivity, and halt ideation.
Artists are particularly prone to anxiety and fearfulness. It is a well-known plague of creatives of any kind, due in part to the vulnerability that is required to put our personal creative output into the world. We have a tendency to balk at the potential judgement that our expressed thoughts (which make up art) may encounter. It is easy to spin terrible narratives in which our work (and in a way, our closest thoughts and our very being) might be disdained and discarded. Another fear that inhibits creatives is the fear that we won’t actually be able to express those thoughts accurately, or communicate fully what we have a deep need to express.
Creative output is a uniquely specific form of output that expresses something incredibly personal. When we create something that previously did not exist, something that is an expression of our internal mind/environment, we expose ourselves to criticism. The criticism of our output can easily feel like a criticism of our inner being, as that is where the output first originated.
Inside of the artist are two “brains”, as the writer Julie Cameron likes to explain it. The Artist brain is our inner inventor, our inner whimsical child, a piece of us that puts together abstract thoughts to come up with new concepts. It is the part of us that can see fragments of color and shape (or sound and word) and make them into something new and meaningful. The Logic brain is all of our second thoughts. It is wary of anything new, anything original and untested, and is the first to point out that our concepts are just a series of unrelated fragments. Logic brain is what tells us that we need to be safe, to avoid scary innovation, to blend in with the average and ordinary in order to avoid danger.
“Art is a high calling — fears are coincidental. Coincidental, sneaky and disruptive, we might add, disguising themselves variously as laziness, resistance to deadlines, irritation with materials or surroundings, distraction over the achievements of others — indeed as anything that keeps you from giving your work your best shot.”
In order to pursue artmaking as the fullest expression of our inner beings, we have to collect all the negative responses (fears) that accumulate to prevent us from producing anything.