Anxiety and the Creative Professional: 5 Ways to Cope

Odd Nerdrum

I call anxiety ‘mind flu’ because it’s as debilitating as any physical ailment. Indeed, I don’t know why we distinguish between mental and physical disabilities when the brain is not only a part of the body but the hard drive and operating system that makes us function. A case of mind flu is like any cold: it can be brief and last a day or two, or go on for far longer, in some cases even becoming chronic.

For the freelance creative anxiety can be a showstopper: we don’t have lifestyles structured by steady employment, so most of us rely on ourselves for motivation, inspiration and timely completion of tasks. If you’re sidelined by mind flu for an extended period of time, you might even put your entire career in jeopardy. I can certainly think of a few instances in my career where different actions could have been taken, or should have been taken, but weren’t because I was curled under a bed in my own head, quivering.

Anxiety is a byproduct of fear, pure and simple, whatever its cause: illness and death, punishment, poverty, rejection, the real inability or the dread of inability to perform. Recent studies have shown that our minds tend to focus more on the negative than the positive as an instinct carried over from man’s more primitive state — those circumstance that don’t threaten you can be ignored, but those that do need to be paid heed or your very survival might be in jeopardy.

Falling Man Mad MenPeople’s reactions vary according to the individual, of course — oh, how I envy truly laidback people who only experience anxiety if you dangled them by their socks off a skyscraper. A creative friend of mine likes to quote a centenarian from the Deep South who was asked what he thought the secret to his longevity was, despite a lifetime of smoking. He replied, “I don’t worry about nothing.” I’m not sure there is any validity to that statement — it turns out the male Holocaust survivors live considerably longer than their peers who didn’t go through that trauma, and yet they live with far more stress from residual fear — but it would certainly be wonderful not to have to go through those gut-twisting periods of constant worry.

Creative people tend to be more high-strung and sensitive than others. Another colleague of mine once commented on how sensitive I am, to which I replied, “Are you kidding me? I’m sensitive about how sensitive I am!” But without that trait, I wouldn’t be able to create. Sensitivity makes me more prone to certain kinds of anxiety than others, namely the performance-based, I’m-making-crap kind. You would think that this insecurity would go away the more successful you are, but in my experience it rarely does, except for the most narcissistic type, the creative professional who refers to himself in the third person and can shrug off a multi-million-dollar disaster because he really believes it had nothing to do with him. How I envy him, too. Most of us are like Tony Scott, with whom I worked briefly and whom I found to be the most insecure successful creative I’ve ever met; I spent almost as much time holding his hand as I did writing for him. If you knew how simple what we were working on was, you’d laugh. And then he killed himself.

When we’re beating ourselves up for one reason or the other and succumbing to occasional anxiety, it pays to remember that professional creatives are outliers who take far more risks with their lives than most others. We’re on a par with gamblers and entrepreneurs, except were not betting on the cards going our way or on the success of a product or service, but on ourselves and the expression of our selves, often at the cost of comfort and even basic sustenance. That takes a level of chutzpah that most people would be too fearful to muster. And yet for us there is no choice but to do what we do.

I’ve been at this creative and general surviving game for a long time now, and to be honest it never gets easier. You have to accept that life’s vagaries are going to up and punch you hard every so often. It’s how you cope with it that matters.

Here are some thoughts on managing anxiety:

[heading]1. Change Your Perspective[/heading]

I love this quotation by the late seven-time premier of Italy, Giulio Andreotti, the subject of that bizarre film Il Divo:

Never over-dramatize things, everything can be fixed; keep a certain detachment from everything; the important things in life are very few.”

Before India began reinventing herself, I usually got two reactions from Americans when I told them I lived and worked there. The cooler ones who had been there would grow misty-eyed and emotional and talk about how the experience changed their lives, how they couldn’t wait to get back. Others would wrinkle their noses and say, “I couldn’t handle the poverty.” And then they would usually add, “But it’s weird how everyone was smiling and happy.” Whenever he heard this, and Indian ex of mine used to smile and say, “What you don’t know, you don’t miss.”

Don't Believe Everything You ThinkThat isn’t to say that poverty or any personal financial crisis isn’t one of the most anxiety-producing circumstances a human can face; again, it threatens our very survival, which triggers those fight-or-flight fear instincts and everything tumbles from there. The point is that in the West we are constantly measuring ourselves against benchmarks set by society and our surroundings. To make matters more challenging, we are not really integral of a societal group like they are in Asia or parts of Europe, we’re individuals who must assert ourselves in society by being successful, and the measurements of that success are based on status, rarely merit. It is far more distressing to be down and out in Beverly Hills, especially if you come from that world, than it is if you live in a rural area of India where everyone around you is in the same circumstance. Misery loves company because it makes us feel less miserable. That’s the basic Law of Schadenfreude.

When I’m faced with an extended period of mind flu — the kind that risks becoming mind pneumonia — I try to focus on the positive in my life, or ‘counting gratitudes,’ as the self-help gurus call it. This is so difficult when your imagination is hacking and wheezing and giving you no peace; it also tends to be fleeting, like breathing in steam when you’ve got a severe cough, just to keep with that analogy. This is because, again, the mind steers you towards obsessing about the negative in order to keep you safe, to the extent that I can even start mocking my attempts at positivity.

It really is all relative. Being pessimistic is just voicing your fears. And true optimism doesn’t mean relentless positivity. It means making ratatouille when life hands you rotting vegetables.

[heading]2. Talk About It[/heading]

I love a good kvetch — getting it off your chest with a close friend is therapeutic and an effective de-stressor. Bottling it up, keeping a stiff upper lip and all that might seem heroic, but it’s really just stoic. But make sure it’s a close friend; you’ll create a bad impression if you start babbling about personal issues in front of people you barely know. As an extrovert’s extrovert, I do that all the time — there is no better way to make a worse first impression.

Indeed, it can be really intense for someone else to listen to your tragic circumstances, especially if it’s relentless owing to your adverse circumstances going on for a long time. What I do is try to wrap up the whine with a good dose of humor and philosophy. Actually having a full-on drama-queen spack-out is unpleasant not just because unabating negativity is as wearying as a month-long monsoon storm, but because it also stresses out the people listening to you.

One huge faux pas is to go on social media to vent. Resist this at all costs. You should view Facebook and Twitter as a genteel cocktail party in a room packed with hundreds of guests, most of whom you aren’t that close to; the reality is that no matter how gregarious you are, how many ‘friends’ or followers you have, most of us have at most a handful of people with whome we are truly close enough that they will bear a rant with equanimity and compassion.

Larry David

Larry David, King of Kvetchers

I have a close friend who is truly hilarious face to face with his rants — it’s his smile and the caustic uptick at the end of his tirades that make it all work. But when he’s in a mood and takes to Facebook to vent, his vitriol can seem alarming enough that other friends who don’t know him as well have commented that he needs anger management therapy. You don’t want this: you’ll just end up anxious that everyone hates you, when they’re really just understandably wary.

I make the distinction between kvetching and complaining. Kvetching has humorous connotations for some reason — there’s something about Yiddish that evokes the vaudeville even in the most serious thing — and it is that quest for the ridiculous in whatever is causing my anxiety that I endeavor to find to the best of my abilities. A synonym for complaining, whining, conjures the impression of an unpleasant sound — I get the image of an air-raid siren if I close my eyes and free associate. So by all means grumble, but give yourself a tickle at the same time. The humor will also help change your perspective.

[heading]3. Walking Meditation[/heading]

A few years ago in L.A., I was going through such an extended period of anxiety that a friend in London had to call me every day or so to make sure I was okay. I really didn’t think I would make it through; my circumstances were so bleak that I couldn’t construct the future, which 60s pop psychologist Rollo May believed was the root cause of depression and anxiety. I just couldn’t see out of the mess I was in. One particularly bad day, my friend barked, “Go for a walk. Now. Anywhere. Just go for a walk.” So I headed into the Hollywood Hills and Griffith Park for a few hours of intense hiking. And things got better, not right then, but eventually, as they are wont to do in most cases.

In my experience — and many Eastern traditions believe the same — there is no better therapy than walking. It’s even more soothing than cycling or yoga; it’s the rhythm of your footfall combined with breathing and the hormones that are produced by exercise, not to mention that it is an excellent way to sort things out in your mind and, again, try to change your perspective. Seated meditation is particularly difficult when you’re stressed — sitting still and stewing in your problems is poison; you’re chasing your own tail around and around and going nowhere. Walk somewhere. Anywhere.

I’m not talking about around the block, either. It takes a minimum of three miles at a decent clip to stabilize my head when I’ve got a severe case of mind flu. The first mile is usually the toughest, but then it generally starts to improve.

Zen Mindful Walking

True Zen mindful walking is too slow. Go at a fast pace and get the heart rate up.

The Zen proverb is, “When walking, walk. When eating, eat.” Emptying your mind of any other thought is the goal, but I find that almost impossible to achieve: the creative mind is just that, creative. Mine is continually on the go, even when I sleep. I dream about my work, and my work is sometimes influenced by my dreams. So I don’t set unreasonable expectations of ‘no mind,’ as the Zen masters call it. A quieted mind is more than enough.

Most of the world doesn’t live in a climate like Southern California’s, where you can just march out the door and quickly count a major gratitude: the incredible weather. If it’s inclement, then head to a yoga class, or even put on a yoga video and do it at home. The point is to move and breathe, and in doing so push beyond the block of anxiety, or just shove the block aside for long enough to understand that there is a future.

[heading]4. Resist Medication[/heading]

If we leave out constructs like the soul and the self and free will and the power of the mind, the bottom line is you are a walking set of chemical reactions, nothing more. Like any other chemical reaction, the slightest thing can imbalance you. Understanding this and being mindful of it can be a first step in stabilizing yourself.

Try to forget about yourself as some quasi-magical being that can make things happen through will, who has some purpose in life, defined or undefined, or some other juju. Instead, see yourself as a highly complex machine — that is the only miracle you need, but most people need more; magical thinking is a natural byproduct of the Never Never Land fantasies of childhood. The components of that complex machine can either be sturdy — and a lot of that has to do with the individual and the state of his/her physical health — or frail, particularly when it comes to the software in our brains that drives us, meaning our intelligence and sense of self. Like all software it can develop bugs from time to time. The objective is to fix those bugs methodically and patiently, not with quick hacks.

I’m not an alcoholic, but when I drink I drink heavily. This is mainly for two reasons: as long as I’m partaking of intoxicants, I like to get my buzz on; I never remember to hydrate while I’m drinking, so I become more dehydrated and drink more alcohol, and it’s a vicious cycle that ends up the next day with me seeped in nausea and crushed by a headache. Not to mention that I have worse anxiety than before, except now it’s chemically induced and false. I’ve upset the balance of my metabolism.

Also related to excessive alcohol consumption is another sporadic side effect with me when I’m overly anxious: rage. It’s a trait I inherited from both my parents. The anxiety will churn within, my fear-riddled mind will start to look for outside factors or people to blame for my predicament, and that fire will become stoked until it burns out of control, and often I will reach for alcohol to put out the fire. But we all know what happens when alcohol comes into contact with flames. (Not that I’m a mean drunk, quite the opposite: I get woozy and humorful. I’m so thankful for that.) It’s the aftermath that I regret: again, a bad hangover will only exponentially worsen the anxiety. So, when I’ve got a particularly bad case of mind flu I try to steer clear of alcohol, and add an extra few miles to the walk to contain rage, if it’s there.

Jack Lemmon in 'Days of Wine and Roses.'

Jack Lemmon in ‘Days of Wine and Roses.’

Xanax and other benzos like Ativan and Valium are okay for a short-term spell of mind flu, but really dangerous in the long term. They are highly addictive, especially Xanax, but despite this I would estimate that fifty percent of my American friends have a standing prescription for it. The worst thing about Xanax & Co. is they shut off your GABA receptors, those amino thingies in your brain that act as your natural coping mechanism for stress and anxiety. When you come off Xanax, your GABA kicks back in and causes false panic attacks worse than the ones you were taking it to manage in the first place. This is why they wean long-term users off, otherwise they stand a real chance of harming themselves out of false, chemically induced despair. Also, combined with alcohol these little monsters of modern pharmaceuticals can lead to blackouts and worse. I cannot think of a drug I am more wary of than Xanax. It’s pernicious.

I will take over-the-counter sleep aids, however. I do believe that sound sleep is as good a therapy as walking, but my coughing mind will keep me up if I don’t help it to shut off. I take the antihistamine doxylamine succinate, the active ingredient in Unisom, rather than diphenhydramine, which gives me a weird hangover. I take Unisom whether I’m in an anxious period or not. It would make me anxious if it weren’t handy, that’s how much of a believer in a good night’s sleep I am. The issue is the morning — it can take you longer to wake up than if you didn’t take a sleep aid. Yeah, well: coffee. Just be aware when you’re drinking coffee with a bad mind flu that it will also cause the anxiety to spike artificially, but that will only last a couple of minutes at most.

[heading]5. When All Else Fails, Medicate[/heading]

Again, there is no difference between a physical and mental disability. So I don’t want to sound like some wacky religious healer who stands over a paraplegic in a wheelchair and yells, “Stand!” If you can’t hack it without the meds, you can’t. And we are lucky in this day and age to have pharmaceuticals and therapies that can help those who cannot overcome their mental challenges naturally.

A Russian character on The Sopranos observed that Americans mistake sadness for depression. I feel there is really only a small percentage of us who truly need to be medicated, far less than the amount who are. This is due not just to some pharmaceutical-industry conspiracy to get us to use more medication, although that is certainly a factor. It’s also because Americans above all other nations despise and are fearful of any sort of discomfort. One should only resort to medication when regular exercise, meditation and a healthy diet just can’t cut it. Having said that, I’ve been anxious enough in my life that I have been unable to exercise. That’s when I make every effort to fight through that deer-in-the-headlights lethargy the best I can and move forward.

Let me leave you with an anecdote that I turn to whenever life gets particularly frightening. When I was younger, less experienced and more prone to over-dramatization, I was going through a particularly stressful time at work. This was compounded by the fact the job I held was in a bank, which has to be the equivalent of the salt mines for a creative person. It was a typical Dilbert situation: my supervisors were trying to fire me for doing my job too well and drawing the attention of the bank’s senior management. (They didn’t succeed.)

I was whining (not in a kvetching way) over tea with my meditation teacher, fully expecting the sort of platitudes caring friends indulge you with to calm you down: everything-will-be-okay predictions of the future that seldom turn out as guaranteed. But I got a dose of realism instead, and that realism is something that I am mindful of more than anything ever said to me, especially the positivist mumbo-jumbo. He said, “Things are probably going to get worse before they get better. But I promise that they will change.”

So just keep calm as best you can and carry on walking.



Comments: 6

  • Suzanna Persad August 6, 20137:17 pm

    Another great article from you James. Thanks for the introspection and sharing. If nothing else there is comfort in knowing we are participating in a shared malaise that is the price of living in a authentic way. Think Rollo May was onto something with that observation but tell me where is the fun in knowing where you are going, would be bored by the destination before arriving.

    • jkillough August 6, 201311:30 pm

      Suzanna Persad Thanks for your lovely comment, Suzanna — it makes this all worthwhile. I’m enjoying writing these pieces about about the creative process. What Rollo May meant was depression comes from not being able to imagine the future at all, when all you can see is a dead end. I believe most suicides are a result of this. I read today that over 90% of prevented suicides won’t attempt again.

      • Suzanna Persad August 7, 20133:08 am

        jkillough Suzanna Persad 
        That is one of a startling rare positive statistic.  Have ordered myself some of Rollo May’s books thanks to your post I wiki’d him, interesting guy with fascinating observations. I read all of your articles your writing is wonderful and always strikes a cord regardless of subject matter. I will be vigilant in hitting the like button from now on as feed back is good. Enjoy the day

        • jkillough August 7, 20139:16 am

          Suzanna Persad jkillough Again, thank you so much for you comment. Great way to start the day. May’s observations about unwed mothers and anxiety were of particular interest to me, and made me reevaluate my relationship with my own mother.

  • Mike Cordle October 29, 20131:04 pm

    I loved your Giulio Andreotti quote. Back in the day, when I was a Christian, when I was faced with a difficult moment, I’d ask myself: “How’s this fit in terms of eternity?” Now that I’m a non-theist, I’ve not quote known how to still use that idea. Your quote hits the mark. Thanks. I’m passing your essay on to a writing friend.

  • jkillough October 29, 20132:03 pm

    Mike Cordle Thanks so much for this comment. It’s for words like yours that I write in the first place.

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