Creativity and Mental Illness

I think a lot about the number of people I’ve heard, whether on podcasts or in real life how they’re afraid to get medication to help with their anxiety, depression, etc, because they’re afraid without it, they’ll lose the “true” emotional core of who they are that allows them to express themselves creatively. But what if it’s the other way around? What if it’s the capacity, the mind set for creativity that predisposes people to be vulnerable to certain emotional struggles?

A number of different studies have drawn links between the two, but I always wondered that the nature of the relationship was. In particular, when I took a couple of Theatre courses in the past year, I had an interesting talk with one of my professors that led me to think it’s something like this:

If I had to define creativity, I would think of it in basic terms as an ability to take two previously disparate topics, two things you wouldn’t normally connect with one another (be they material things or abstract concepts), and associating/combining them in a way that most people wouldn’t consider. Now, apply that notion to a chronically anxious individual, say someone who’s nervous for their next job interview. They feel like if they can’t get this job, then it’s their last hope, then no one will hire them, then they’ll lose their apartment, end up on the street and live a lonely, forgotten existence. Sounds excessive, but that’s the kind of catastrophizing myself and many people I know do in their heads.

When you then talk to someone who doesn’t suffer from anxiety, there’s a good chance they’ll respond with something like, “Isn’t that a bit of a leap? Just because X happens doesn’t mean that it’s going to lead RIGHT to catastrophic conclusion Y!”

Exactly. That’s exactly it. That capacity, that propensity to link two or more only tangentially related things into a cohesive whole is analogous to the kind of thinking that leads us to think that “shitty but manageable thing A will inevitably lead to B, C, D… all the way to life-ruining outcome Z.”

One way of thinking of it is the old “it’s a blessing and a curse” addage, but I think maybe a better way of considering it is like a really awesome, but really specialized piece of software. You have this awesome program for making breathtaking art, revolutionary inventions, and solving dastardly problems, and it does a fantastic job at that. But you feed this machine a question about the true nature of, say, Existential Ethics, and it might just fizz out and explode, setting things ablaze and taking out the printer two rooms over.

That doesn’t necessarily make it defective (though you should probably call someone to see if you can fix the whole exploding thing). It just means that you need to be aware when you’re using a certain tool to try and solve a problem that it simply doesn’t have the capacity to solve. I’m not a big fan of the whole right-brained/left-brained thing (largely because it’s been shown to be vastly oversimplified), but there IS value in thinking of your mental skills as modules in some way.

So next time you find yourself enveloping mentally into “my life is DOOMED” or something like it, maybe consider the possibility that you’ve got the wrong disc in. Take a moment, take a breath, and do your best to engage the linear, procedural reasoning part of your brain, or at least be aware of the possibility that some of the catastrophic thoughts you’re thinking are NOT, in fact, products of the situation, but of your own fears. That way, you can attempt to switch the focus from your perceived “DOOOOOOOOOOM!! (yes, I’m going to keep capitalizing it) and onto the reasoning that fuels that fear. There’s a good chance that digging at that root of the problem will get you a lot further than thinking up new and complex ways of torturing yourself emotionally.

And as always, don’t worry, I know. I should follow my own advice.

Vince Smith is a writer, podcast host, and dyed-in-the-wool geek of all trades. You can check out other articles and videos by him over at The Rogues’ Gallery, or drop by his Facebook Page, Vincent Smith: Writer, Scholar, Gentleman for other musings from the catacombs of the Internet.

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