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Creating in an Age of Anxiety, Depression, and Dread

Anxiety can lead to better art, but do the two have to be so mutually intertwined?
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Anxiety presents itself a lot of different ways, even within the same person from day to day. It can be a sense of obligation so overwhelming it shackles you to your bed, unable to make even a single move toward your goal. It can be the heaving and unfulfilling breaths that characterize an anxiety attack. For me, most often, it was, and is, the sensation of being in a crowded room abuzz with conversation. Sometimes you’re deeply attuned to what’s being said, sometimes you’re not, but it’s never quiet. Finally getting a handle on my anxiety in late 2016, through a combination of therapy, medications and supplements, and lifestyle changes, felt like closing a door on the cacophony of voices. The chatter was still there, but it was much softer and considerably less distinct. I could walk away from the door and let it all carry on without me.

But in the days following the election, the grip I had on said handle started to slip. And in the days surrounding Donald Trump’s inauguration, this black female immigrant lost it altogether. The door had been thrust open, and the “inside” voices whose fears I’d been able to keep at bay, were now being validated by “outside” voices and accompanying legislation. Speculation on polarizing and alienating legislation turned into fact, as campaign promises — the product of worst-case scenarios that were often brushed off as infeasible — were signed into executive action. Amid the chaos, now both internal and external, I panicked to think: How am I going to work through any of this?

Jon Wolf, founder of YouTime Coaching, notes that this sort of concern is not only normal, but also grounded in something deeply biological:

Humans have a few basic needs, the need for certainty, variety (of emotions/experiences), significance (feeling noticed, important, and unique), and for connection/love (worthy of love, connection/love to people/environments). We all place different priority on these needs, but when we are not getting one of those needs met, we search out ways to fulfill it … [s]ome individuals feel this political landscape creates a lot of uncertainty and this can very easily lead to anxiety.

A common refrain issued to the creative community, those who live their lives trading on their writing, or art, or perspective, is that this uncertainty and occasional anguish is the kind that fuels great art. Recalling iconic images created during World War II, or the protest song movement that erupted during Vietnam, these well-meaning hopefuls would have us believe that the pain that comes from living in uncertain or even outright dangerous times has a silver lining. We do have evidence that great moments of leadership and activism have come from individuals like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., who successfully (albeit quietly) navigated the intersection of mental illness and generative action.

And yet, these don’t seem like the sort of circumstances that should be needed to create things. I think, most notably, about a single week in July of 2016. In addition to losing a longtime friend personally, the nation also saw the tragic deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, as well as the murder of multiple police officers in Texas. Not only was I unable to write or work that week, I was barely able to move or eat.

So is there any truth to it? Irrespective of the cause, are pain, dread, or mental illness a necessary ingredient to creative success? With an anxious mind in need of answers, I decided to investigate.

As I often have in the years since my formal diagnosis, I looked to a world that has helped me immeasurably in managing my anxiety—that of comedy. For someone whose mind constantly leaps to the past and ruminates, or to the future and worries, I’ve found that comedy has proven immensely helpful in learning to stay present—when you’re not, you miss the joke, and the show goes on without you. The comedy world has its own unique relationship with mental illness: namely, a pervasive assumption that it’s required to be any good at it. The tragic end of comics like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, and, more recently, Greg Giraldo and Robin Williams, have inextricably linked struggle and sadness with this field designed to generate precisely the opposite.

But this link isn’t as ironclad as we’ve been led to think. Studies out of the University of New Mexico and the University of Colorado–Boulder have found the level of neuroses and childhood trauma in comedians fairly consistent with that of the general population (in this instance, university-age students), and that their seeming focus on trauma is more of a storytelling mechanism than actual representation of dysfunction.

The death of Williams, in particular, generated a flurry of conversation around this topic; one of the most moving rebuttals to this line of inquiry came from his former onscreen daughter Mara Wilson:

Please don’t romanticize mental anguish. I know many people who think to be an artist means you have to suffer, or at least wallow in old miseries. It’s not only an incorrect assumption — there are comedians who had happy upbringings, I swear — but it will only hurt them and the people who care about them. Artists who struggled with mental illness, trauma, disease, addiction (often the latter is a way of self-medicating after the first three) did not want or welcome it. I don’t know if I’d consider myself an artist, but speaking as someone who sometimes makes stuff, my best work is created when I’m content and contemplative, looking back on painful times rather than in the middle of them.

Wilson, who has been open in recent years about her struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, and depression, ends this passage in her tribute with this poignant reminder: “a person is a person first and a story second.”

Kristen Abell, founder of mental illness advocacy group The Committed Project, echoes this “person first” sentiment. A higher education professional by trade, she first started her online writing career talking about technology, and its intersection with higher education work, and doing all of this while being a wife and mother. But when she started being more vulnerable and sharing how depression affected these pursuits, something changed and a question arose.

“I spent more than one session talking with [my therapist] about who I would be if I didn’t have depression — especially because, at that time, I was really building a whole reputation around advocating for mental illness, writing and speaking about it. Would I still be able to do that work if I wasn’t still someone with depression?”

This is a question I must confess I’ve also posed. While I worry — as is my way — about being able to be productive and prolific while anxious, I worry as much about who I’d be and how I’d work if I weren’t. Do I need all the voices that were contained behind that door, shouting at me with varying clarity and volume, to be who I am? Kristen has finally arrived at a “no” on this: “[W]hat I came to realize is that, while my depressive episodes provided some fuel/content for me, almost ALL of the work I was doing — whether speaking, writing, or advocating for others — I could only do when I wasn’t actively depressed.”

When faced with the same question, Jon’s answer was somewhat more diplomatic. “People seem to have an easier time writing about extremely happy and sad times, but it gets a little tougher in the middle.” His take? The need for struggle to cultivate good work, depends on what you do with the events in question. “The biggest determinant that I have seen to whether there is truth to this statement is how an individual frames the circumstance and event. Almost identical events could happen to two different individuals and yield very different responses. How they frame those experiences can dictate a lot of what’s to come.”

It’s comforting to know that I’m not facing these questions alone. Where the stigma of mental illness normally pushes individuals into hiding, the collective anxiety, depression, and dread of current affairs has created a coping collective of sorts. In the months leading up to the election, psychologists and counselors were hearing “higher levels of concern and dismay” than in any previous cycle. And the grieving that followed the election for many, while not universal, has been profoundly real, particularly for those in marginalized groups, likely to feel that longstanding oppression is now institutionalized and emboldened.

So now we return to the original question at hand: the chatter, the frenzy, the nervous energy that has always been beneath the surface, has been awakened again. Do I need it to create? Do others, who struggle with similar anxious energy, from depressive thoughts, or unpredictable panic, need those moments to create a lasting effect with our work? Today, I choose to believe that, while it’s not essential to the process, I can use it.

Soren Kierkegaard speaks of anxiety as a “dizziness of freedom” a reality that I can work to embrace in the throes of an anxious moment, but also choose to channel in my quieter and less frenzied moments. In moments where that anxiety was self-generated, I sought out ways to “burn off” that energy. A quick run or workout, “task switch” to a different project, or some other productive use of that moment helped me find space to work, often while inspiring a new passage or talking point. That dizziness of freedom is borne of something completely different now, but perhaps can be solved differently. Something I write in a postcard to a senator, or learn from someone who marches alongside me carrying a sign, or learn from someone I once thought was determined to misunderstand me, could spark a new idea for the blank page facing me. These moments may not be essential for my writing or speaking, but I’m refusing to let myself become unmoored by the alternative that inaction would provide. Yes, the door to the crowded room has been thrust open once again, but this time I’m taking control of the conversation.