How to Manage Anxiety and Stay Creative
I'm writing this in March of 2020. The country is currently in full-blown panic mode about the coronavirus and the Covid-19 disease. The state of California, where I live, is under lockdown. The numbers for confirmed cases is skyrocketing, while the question of "how bad is this thing" in terms of what happens to you, if you were to get it, still remains unclear.
All of this is a recipe for stress and anxiety. This might be affecting you directly in terms of changes to your life. Even if you have not lost a job or been fortunate to avoid a significant plunge in income, I still believe the heightened level of "ambient anxiety" in the world right now can creep into our mental lives and throw a wrench in one's creative processes and work.
In the face of this, I believe it's important to take individual action and initiative to manage one's anxiety level. This is a form of self-care that should not only be done during particularly stressful times, but can be done at any time. Staying creative and working on creative projects can help you manage stress. However, that is easy to say. The hard part of managing stress is...the stress.
What follows are a series of ideas I have used to manage this anxiety and stress and create some mental space in my life to keep the creative wheels turning. All of these ideas may not be feasible for you, although I hope some are or can spark ideas beneficial to your own circumstances.
There are plenty of well documented benefits to journalling, and I won't recount them all here. For me personally, the point of journaling is two-fold: One, to put into coherent narrative form the various thoughts bouncing around my head. Two, the act of putting thoughts into words, sentences, and onto paper, externalizes the thoughts and gets them out of my head. When they are on paper, they stop rattling around my head and allow other more productive and creative trains of thought. This topic is covered extensively in The Artist's Way
The one particular trick I use while journalling, is to just ask questions. I don't put any pressure on myself to answer the questions. I just write them down. One question usually leads to another, and another, and asking them repeatedly ends up focussing my mind on issues applicable to my own life, and not other people's worries or media hype. Often, the key to creative ideas is creative questions.
2. Go outside, get some sun, go for a walk
I personally love to stay indoors, hunker down, and engage in deep focus. At the same time I know it's important to get outside, get some sun and fresh air. Mentally, this jogs my mind and prevents me from getting stuck in a mental rut. A trick to this is doing it at the same time each day, so it becomes a habit. Sometimes creative solutions to tricky problems have appeared to me when I've intentionally stepped away. During stressful times, fixating on the news or social media can be its own mental rut. Making myself get outside and just walk around the block is a good way to reset my brain.
3. Go for a run
I realize that going for a run is something that is not feasible for many people because of climate or location. However, whenever I have had the chance, I've taken the opportunity to incorporate regular running into my week. I find the steady state one can get into, during a relaxed run is very meditative. When I'm relaxed and running, and I have some good music playing, it frees up my mind to explore new ideas and creative territory. Another trick I use for running is to place zero pressure on myself, in terms of pace, speed, or length of my run and to just focus on relaxing and enjoying being outside.
Meditation has a ton of well documented benefits, which I am not going to recount. But what is not often shared is how meditation and running can compliment each other. Regarding creativity, meditation trains the mind to avoid getting caught up in anxious thoughts. This is a skill that pays dividends in all areas of life. Relating to creativity, it allows one to put a cap on anxious thinking so that productive and creative thinking can have room to function.
5. Detach from social media and media in general
Before the pandemic crisis of March of 2020, I encountered and have come to agree with a lot of the thinking that social media can be a detriment to one's life. Artists and creative people validly see social media as means of promoting and sharing their own work, so have a propensity to engage in it more than others. Something like a worldwide pandemic can only amplify this, and amplify the intake of anxiety-laden content.
So I believe it is more important for creative professionals to have a very defined and delimited relationship with social media. I personally find my life is improved by severely limiting the amount of time I spend on social media and media, in general. Massive amounts of effort are put into tuning both social media and regular media to be overly sensationalized and anxiety provoking. Just as I avoid putting inflammatory foods into my body, I avoid blindly putting inflammatory content into my brain. The writings of Cal Newport cover this further.
6. Be mindful of your input/process/output ratio
This idea is a little more abstract and I won't be able to tell you how exactly this will apply to your own life. By input I mean the media you consume. This refers to movies, tv shows, or anything you are passively consuming (including consuming social media). By process I mean how much time you spend on thinking, processing, or ruminating on your own ideas (including journalling). By output means actively creating, working on artwork, and externalizing ideas. All of these are important.
I can't say what the definite or right ratio is for you or any one person. However, I do think it is important to not let any one category consume more of your time, at the detriment of others. So if you find yourself with heavy levels of input, make some time to process and output. If you've pushed yourself to keep outputting, give yourself the time to put things down and do some restful input and processing.
7. Make something
The act of making something, large or small, a quick sketch or a masterpiece, keeps us close to our ability to act and exert agency in this world. It can seem hard, initially, to get started, but forcing yourself to sit down and concentrate on something you enjoy doing and creating will push away the world's problems for a while and let your mind rest. When you're done, you have a physical reminder and artifact of that effort. Keep in mind it is also important to avoid putting pressure on yourself to do too much or accomplish too much. What matters is staying in control of what you can control.
Remember that tough times demand tough people. As difficult as the upcoming year will be, as artists, we will have to fight hard to maintain the ability to keep creating. I hope these ideas can help you turn this time into one where you've risen to the challenge of staying focused on creating. Most of all, I hope these ideas can help you stay in command of your own health and mental well-being.