Stress can come in many forms. Often it stems from something beyond our control, whether a breakup, loss of someone dear, or losing a job. We can even feel anxiety when trying something new or in anticipation of an exciting new project. Regardless of the source, you’re not alone if you’re feeling anxious; you’re only human.
Just as we’ve explored anxiety in the workplace, how creatives handle tough transitions, and navigating grief, here we’ll explore how creatives can manage anxiety so they can get back to creating. We tend to want a “quick fix” for challenges, but when dealing with anxiety, it’s better to think of it as a practice where you build (and maintain) muscles over time—much like the creative process itself.
We talked to experts who use creativity to manage anxiety in their own ways and pulled together different tools for you to explore. Many of them are things you can start as soon as you get to the bottom of this article.
1. Awareness is everything.
Anxiety, fear, and grief are all normal responses to transition. Anxiety is something that tends to build over time, and through awareness—of both body and mind—we can help minimize its effects.
Lia Love Avellino, LCSW, psychotherapist, director of The Well, and co-founder of Spoke Circles, explains that our anxiety is trying to help us. Think of it as your body’s alarm system going off trying to get you to notice what’s happening. It’s your body trying to tell you it has new needs. “We want to notice the thoughts, sensations, location in our body, memories that come to mind, and images.”
Think about where anxiety shows up for you. Does it show up with a recurrent thought? Does it live in your chest? Is it nervous energy? If you’re a visual person, what does it look like?
For some people, anxiety will exhibit itself through a frenetic energy, while for others it may make you want to retreat. Begin tracking what takes you into it, and what takes you out, as well as when it happens. Hint: What do you feel like when you look at your phone before bed vs. listen to music or a meditative podcast?
In addition to somatic, or body-based responses, the wheel of emotional words can also be helpful to give you some of the vocabulary for what you’re feeling.
2. Tune in.
Nkechi Deanna Njaka, MSc is a neuroscientist, meditation teacher, and multi-disciplinary artist who runs her own integrated studio around mindfulness. Njaka uses meditation as a practice to tune into awareness and to calm her nervous system. If you’re resistant to meditation, know that a minute or two can be a great place to start. Instead of worrying about your mind wandering, Njaka recommends paying attention to where it wanders. “As soon as we get to the present moment, we can’t really think about the past or the future, which is really our source of anxiety,” she notes. Njaka astutely says when you’re able to start noticing troubled situations through the practice of awareness, you can stop doing them; “It’s simple, not necessarily easy.” And flexing the muscle of returning to presence can also show up in your creative practice as you may find focus and flow come easier.
3. Rewire the brain.
When it comes to the brain, Njaka explains that it’s neuroplastic, meaning malleable, where a thought is like a groove in your brain—and we can change the pathways of those grooves. As creatives, we are likely used to choosing our own path, which can be a useful metaphor for blazing your own (healthier) thought paths.
According to Dr. Eric Maisel, a long-time family therapist-turned-coach who works with creative and performing artists, talks about cognitive restructuring in this way: “You can choose to approach life anxiously, or you can choose to approach life calmly. It’s a matter of flipping an internal switch—one that you control. Your attitude is yours to determine.”
When I attended one of Maisel’s Deep Writing workshops, he suggested we ask ourselves “Is that a thought that serves you?” when negative thinking started to creep into our writing practice. It’s a phrase that I keep returning to, and a reminder to flip the script.
4. Pay attention to how you talk to yourself.
Self-soothing can go a long way when it comes to managing anxiety. Karden Rabin, a wellness expert, teacher, and bodyworker specializing in stress-related disorders shares the example of a child who is down on themselves because their drawing wasn’t as good as someone else’s in the class. What would the parent say to the child? Probably something about how they think the drawing is beautiful, unique, and special, just like the child.
The next time you find yourself being hard on yourself or your work, pause and ask yourself what you would tell your 5-year-old self. As Rabin says, “It’s really about tapping into the quality of compassion that you would provide for a child and doing the same for yourself. The real trick is in being compassionate without repressing your inner critic. Just ask it to simply take a step back for a moment.”
And Avellino blocks times in her day (for her it’s 15 minutes) devoted to both worrying and dreaming, and recommends it to others as a tool so the thoughts don’t stay trapped in your body and affect you. First, she lets her worries out of her system (writing them down, or speaking them out loud), and during a separate block of time lets her mind wander, allowing play and escapism. Even in anxious times, you can still dream and focus on possibilities and lighter moments.
5. Move your body.
Movement is an important tool to help us get out of our heads and can help us shift our energy and breathing. As a dancer, Njaka points out, “We can express ourselves emotionally so powerfully through the body, which is also therapeutic.” Movement can also include yoga, going for a walk or run, or dancing like no one is watching.
Rabin uses what he calls “stress first aid,” based on neurobiology and the responses of the triune brain, to encourage movement. He explains how older systems of the brain end up highjacking newer systems back to fight-or-flight mode, so moving your body becomes the natural response. Vigorous movement and exercising allows your instinctual brain to feel like it’s escaping, or getting away from what’s bothering you.
6. Watch what you take in.
What you put into your body plays a role in your energy and how your mind and body feel. Professionals are the first to call out coffee, alcohol, and sugar as things to eliminate (or minimize). Limiting your intake can make a big difference rather than going cold turkey.
Rabin suggests when you do indulge, be super present. “If you’re thinking, I want to be nice to myself and have a cookie, you’re going to miss the pleasure principle of eating that cookie if you’re on your phone and distracting yourself at the same time.” Instead, take the time to savor the moment while being present.
In addition to things we digest, consider an “information diet.” So much of our personal fear and anxiety is generated by the information we absorb, whether social media or the news. Consider using tools that limit your phone or internet time if you find yourself getting sucked into those energy drains. If you need something to do with your hands, consider activities like knitting, needlepoint, or collaging.
7. Stay connected to others.
During stressful times, it’s important to hold onto social connections. Reaching out to a friend or trusted family member can often ease anxiety. If you don’t feel up for a conversation, try sending a voice memo. You can even get creative and send a written letter or sketched comic. And, of course, professional therapists and counselors can work with you on your specific situation.
You can also pause and consider how you’re helping support others in your life through the words you say to them. People usually don’t want someone’s advice or a solution to a problem, they just want to be heard. Rather than asking, “Are you OK?” during anxious times, Avellino suggests questions like, “What is feeling good to you right now?” or “What can I do to be a better friend to you right now?”
8. Embrace basics.
When we’re anxious, stressed, or on a deadline, sleep is often the best medicine. Sleep will not only make you feel more rested, it will help strengthen your immune system. To help get enough sleep, consider making your bedroom a phone-free zone (remember that information diet). Instead, make your bed a place where you read a novel to escape to another world or sketch with pencil and paper.
According to Maisel, “The simplest—and a quite powerful—anxiety management technique is deep breathing. By stopping to breathe deeply (5 seconds on the inhale, 5 seconds on the exhale), you stop your racing mind and alert your body to the fact that you wish to be calmer. Begin to incorporate deep breaths into your daily routine.” (We explored “box breathing,” a technique used by Navy SEALs, in this post.) Another easy way to ease anxiety is to take a hot shower.
9. Lighten your load.
Hustle culture and societal pressures add up fast. In order to have clarity of thought and a calm mind, this sometimes involves taking as many things off your plate as possible.
Rabin explains stress as an overly full balloon. A balloon that’s 100% full of air will explode as soon as it bumps into a surface. Take the air down to 95% and there’s already a cushion to protect it from popping.
Remember, this is not about instant gratification. You’re building muscles. Managing anxiety is a practice and takes commitment, time, and patience. It’s not a race to the end. We are all works in progress.