Wednesday, October 27, 2010

How to deal with Anxiety as an Artist

Seal here:
In the pursuit of your artistic endeavor, you may have probably come across anxiety revolving your art. As an artist you may be plagued in different areas or stages in the act of creativity. It can be towards the beginning: anxiety about what painting subjects to choose. So many stories to write. So many paintings to do! Where do I even begin. It can be in the middle of creating: "oh my god, where is this going?" "what was I trying to say in the first place" "will I find the strength and courage to finish this?" It can be towards the end of finishing a piece: "now that it's done, it'll be judged" "I"ll have to show it to people" "I'll have to try to sell it" Even in sports and theater, people have a name for it: performance anxiety.

Anxiety, not handled or minimized can and seriously hamper our creativity. It can even cause people to stop creating altogether. It can be paralyzing and become a misdirected self- guilt towards our own inaction. So, how can we make it better? How can we deal with anxiety?

Let's break it down: What is anxiety and what causes it? Anxiety is our body's system response to a PERCEIVED or REAL threat/stress. There is the physiological aspect to it: sweating, muscle tension, shakiness. Our body shuts down our digestive system and any access to carbohydrates (our normal way of getting daily energy), and instead our brain activates adrenaline and expends our stored emergency energy. For a short period, we may experience a burst of fight or flight response, but overtime our body wears out, unable to access our normal carbohydrates, we get tired, we crash and burn. It is not sustainable. It is not meant to be.

First, we need to understand that there is are positive and negative responses to anxiety. When we are faced with a "real threat," such as a lion who is charging at us, our anxiety becomes a positive (a much needed) respond, we run really quickly or climb a tree - anything to relieve us from the immediate and very real danger ahead of us.

How about when anxiety takes hold of us in our art: Whether we start painting A or painting B first. Does it pose a threat? to our life? career? or daily existence? Does it matter what we choose? In the grand scheme of things, yes, of course it matters - because you have to paint something that you like and is true to who you are, but will it kill you if you make the wrong choice?

So if you scored a never-before-heard-of contract with a gallery, it seems almost too good to be true. You get an uneasy feeling in your gut. Is it a real threat? We don't know.

Each anxiety must be evaluated individually: Is this a real or perceived threat? And only you ultimately can answer that in each case.

So do the research. You keep calling the gallery to make an appointment and no one ever returns your calls. You ask to visit the gallery ahead of time and they ask that you deposit your paintings first. Then, . . . probably, your anxieties were well-placed and had probably saved you. OR You find out that the gallery had great reputation among your well-known artist friends, you were nervous mainly about having to show your work, not about the gallery itself, then perhaps your anxiety is misplaced.

So what if we find out the threat was perceived, that it doesn't really kill us to choose Painting A or Painting B, but we still have anxiety about choosing, working on the art, or finishing the art. What we can teach you is how to minimize, handle, and ask the right questions in regards to each anxiety.

  1. First, grow in your awareness and acknowledgment of your own anxious thoughts/actions in regards to art. Seal gets very nervous before starting a painting.
  2. Voice out WHY you are anxious, What is it in particular that makes your nervous? : Seal grew up with critical people in her life, she is afraid that every piece of artwork is bad. She is afraid that she doesn't have good ideas, that she's not creative enough.
  3. How does the anxiety manifest itself? Seal has to have multiple cups of tea, stalling and procrastinating before putting any marks on the canvas. She goes on Facebook or checks her email multiple times, just stalling. Her negative anxiety of inaction begin a downward spiral in her mind, and she shuts down.
  4. If you know that this anxiety is recurring (every time Seal starts a painting), just knowing and anticipating the known anxiety is helpful. Given the circumstances, how would you, personally, minimize and deal with your own repeating anxiety? Seal braces herself: Okay, I'm going to have my 2 cups of tea, but no more. After 30 minutes of procrastinating, on Facebook, I will start. When I hear the negative self talk start, I will put a halt on it: I'm doing good. My ideas are good. I am creative. I have everything I need right now, in order to create.
  5. Scientists have pointed out that there are also two more ways to relieve stress/anxiety in general: you can physically take out your stress on something else (punching someone- not recommended, but you can buy a punching bag and it is shown to have the same impact in lowering anxiety.
  6. Also, taking action, ANY action (jogging, talking to friends on the phone, listening to music) immediately lowers stress, whether that action is directly correlated or not to solving your initial problem. (But afterward, tackle your art! There is a difference between initially relieving your stress with chronic avoidance).
Hope you know that as an artist, you are not alone. Many people deal with anxiety, most especially artists, because we are often putting our hearts out on our sleeves. But in the end, despite the fear, the agonizing pain, and anxious turmoil, when you have completed and created that art - hadn't it all been worth it?

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