Surrendering to Creativity: The Psychology of Remembering to Breathe (Part 3 of 3)

Up until graduate school, I often indulged the myth that good writing was a sacred thing to be done under the most precise conditions.  Akin to knowing without a timer when the soufflee has finished (sorry, I have holidays sweets on the mind), the creativity dedicated to a well-written piece had to be carefully cultured and perfected.  My patterns were always the same, although the specific details evolved with time.  In high school I had to have a roll of Smarties sitting at the computer table–as if the name of the candy could instill the process with some further artistic juice– and would savor each chalky tart piece, eating the candy like I wrote the paper: one paragraph, one piece at a time.  I needed to feel the rough scratchy wool of my grandmother’s quilt wrapped around my shoulders as I wrote or, I was convinced, writer’s block would engulf me. In college, I replaced a pack of Smarties with bottomless cups of raspberry tea and honey, and wrapped myself in warm beams of sunlight that poured through the windows of the dining hall in which I wrote.  Creativity, and writing in particular, had this sacredness to it, that should any little part of it be off–the dining hall have only lemon chamomile tea or my favorite oaken table be already occupied–I was gripped by the anxiety that the words in my brain would evaporate before I could get them on the page.  Until graduate school, anxiety over the writing process and the necessary creativity to construct pretty prose seemed invariably in conflict.  I had to have my writing ritual or I could not write.
For better or worse, graduate school stripped me of this myth.  Maybe it’s not this way for other students or maybe it’s that I replaced herbal tea with triple shot espressos in graduate school, but I am always anxious: anxious about the next stats midterm, anxious about whether my presentation left a good impression on my professors, anxious about whether my paper will get desk rejected.   A sacred writing space for creative thought is a luxury; in grad school, you just have to write.  You have to get over the fear that creativity and anxiety are incompatible.  In the final part of this series, I want to talk about the ways in which anxiety can actually aid creativity and provide a space for others to share ways in which they channel their anxiety to encourage creativity.  

Creativity as a coping mechanism.  Hindering free association and knowledge gathering, anxiety would seem detrimental to maximizing creativity; reaching one’s full innovative potential requires mindfully acknowledging the stress without allowing it to interfere in creative production.  Coining the term “creative defensive style,” Carlsson (2002) found highly creative people exhibited more methods for dealing with stress than people low in creativity.  Although highly creative participants employed immature as well as mature coping methods, the correlation demonstrates a link between creativity and the need for reduced anxiety. In his study of creative children, Onwuegbuzie (2000) suggested kids who suffer from uncontrollable familial or physical stressors seek out intellectual settings and problems they can manage; through finding a solution to a solvable problem, creative children gain the feeling of combating a seemingly ungovernable existence.  Onwuegbuzie’s model, generalized to adults, would imply some creative individuals reduce their inner tension by tackling domain-specific questions deemed within their solving capabilities. Nicol and Long (1996), administering the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking to 95 professional female musicians, demonstrated, however, that well-developed coping skills does not guarantee creativity or signify a higher incidence of stress.  Comparing means on the 14-item Perceived Stress Scale, the Creative Adjective Checklist, and the Creative Behavior Inventory, they found no evidence that creative behavior or a creative personality predicts one’s perceived coping efficacy.

Although Nicol and Long’s study appears to deny a link between creativity and coping with anxiety, their research supports the idea that creativity may reduce stress by changing how an individual perceives an event.  According to Nicol and Long’s results, highly creative women viewed their life as less stressful than other women.  Research by Grant et al. (2004) provides insight as to why creative women report fewer stressors despite prior studies acknowledging the prevalence of stressful familial and physical events in their lives.  Testing the hypothesis creative production increases one’s perceived competence over mindfulness alone, Grant et al. had 88 men and women in Rome, Italy draw or observe their surroundings.  Participants in the “art” condition drew or observed sculptures in the Pantheon while subjects in the “novel” condition drew or observed their view of the Colluseum; the researchers predicted subjects in the art condition would feel inferior and have lower competence scores.  Their 2×2 ANOVA revealed a significant interaction between perspective and setting, with individuals who drew in the novel setting reporting more perceived competence than those who just observed.  Grant et al.’s findings demonstrate creative production in a stimulating setting can cause individuals to change their self-perceptions.  Adopting this perspective, highly creative people may only see themselves as less anxious or subject to fewer stressors than they actually are.  Their creative production helps them reshape their perspective, thereby reducing the inner tension they feel.

Overcoming artist’s block through mindful creativity. Although innovativeness may deter overwhelming anxiety, when stressors becomes too great the pressure can paralyze creativity.  Of the twenty British painters interviewed by Dewey et al. (1998), over half reported frequent “artist’s blocks,” periods where failing inspiration left them unable to produce art.  To overcome their inutility, several painters reported employing meditation and self-hypnosis.  In a separate study by Davé (1979), a twenty-nine year old graduate student in a separate study on hypnosis and creativity recalled how overwhelming anxiety about his doctoral thesis had stifled his creativity, leaving him unable to write for a year and a half (too real! I hope this doesn’t fortell my own thesis journey to come…) .  He only overcame his artist’s block after receiving hypnosis treatment from Davé, slipping into dreams focused on mindful consideration of his problem.  In a follow-up session, the subject reported the hypnotic dreams allowed him to recast his project as “a career goal” rather than “something intimidating and mysterious.” (Davé, 1979, p. 300).   Similar to creative production’s ability to influence individual’s self-perception, meditation and hypnosis enable some people to change how they look at anxiety.  The mindful approach focuses on the creative process, adopting the artist’s block as a problem deserving its own divergent thinking and shifting focus away from one’s frustration at the inability to create.

In addition to redefining anxiety’s effect on creativity, Davé (1979) demonstrated hypnosis and mindful meditation can bolster creativity directly.  Randomly assigning 24 subjects—all with academic, vocational or personal problems—into one of three conditions, Davé sought to compare the effects of hypnotic-dream treatment, rational-cognitive therapy, and a personality interview (the control condition) on developing creative solutions.  In the hypnotic-dream condition, the experimenter talked participants into an initial hypnotic state before suggesting they visualize and dream about their creative problem for the next seven nights.  Participants in the rational-cognitive therapy condition  had to describe their problem and the steps they had taken to resolve it to the experimenter, who pointed out logical missteps in their approach.  In the control condition, the experimenters told subjects they would undergo a manipulation later and asked for their demographic information in the meantime.  Despite a small sample size, Davé’s experiment provides strong evidence for hypnosis’ effect on creative production; six of eight participants arrived at solutions to their long-standing problems compared to one of the eight rational-cognitive subjects and zero of the eight control subjects.  Reassigning the eight control subjects to the two manipulations, Davé again found 75% of subjects in the hypnosis condition developed a solution in the week following the experiment.  Six of the nine hypnotist participants arriving at novel ways to transcend their problem cited the direct influence of at least one of their hypnotic dreams while another two acknowledged the joint effect of hypnotic and nocturnal dreams.  Although not accessible for everyone, focused hypnosis increased participants’ divergent thinking and enabled them to find their own method for transcending their problems.  

So what can you do?

Not meant to be an exhaustive list by any means, the following suggestions have some research-backed support for encouraging creativity in the midst of anxiety.

  • Meditation – The ability to sit and empty one’s mind seems a daunting task, and perhaps counter intuitive to being creative; how can you create new things if you’re not supposed to be thinking about them?  Meditation and, in particular, mindfulness are widely used within clinical psychology to help individuals suffering from various anxiety disorders.  While it has been shown to reduce anxiety over all, it may also simultaneously increase creativity.  Although a bit technical for most folks to follow, Horan (2009) outlines the neurological relationship between creativity and meditation.  His paper discusses in great detail various types of meditation and their specific effects on creativity.  If personally interested in trying mindfulness or meditation, you need not become a Buddhist monk.  Many community centers, yoga studios and temples offer free, drop-in meditation hours that can help you create a routine for incorporating meditation into your life.
  • Yoga – A hot button word, “yoga”, encompasses a broad range of activities and mindsets.  While folks looking for a work out should check out Power Yoga or Broga, those inclined to seek out yoga for its meditative properties might want to explore Hatha or Vinyasa styles.  The key is to find a teacher and style of yoga that encourages you to explore the seeming controversies.  Five long minutes in chair pose with burning thighs and the pounding mental refrain of “I can’t anymore….” serves to prove the point that seeming inconsistences–like anxiety and creativity–can coexist.  You can hold the pose, even beyond when your brain thinks you cannot.  Beyond the metaphor of seemingly opposing forces coexisting, yoga shares powerful health benefits with many other forms of exercise.  It releases positive hormones like dopamine and spurs divergent thinking, providing a refreshing break from a bad case of writer’s block.
  • Hypnosis – So this option might be a bit more controversial and “out there,” I admit, but some people swear by it.  Call it the placebo effect if you will, hypnosis has been useful in alleviating many people’s mental as well as physical ailments.  My grandmother–admittedly only one person–broke free from her addiction to smoking cold turkey after a single session with a hypnotist.  She also drives a golf cart and grew up in the Depression, so take her experience with a grain of salt, since I’m not sure how generalizable it is.  For more on both sides of the debate about hypnosis and creativity, check out work by Manmiller, Kumar & Pekala (2005) as well as older work by Bowers (1979).

Please feel free to share other research articles or your own strategies for reducing anxiety and buffering creativity in the comments below!