Mental Health Series: How To Harness Your Creative Temperament and Stay Sane, Married and Sober


image courtesy crosa, Creative Commons

by Kristin Nador/@KristinNador

Do your emotions stop you dead in your writing tracks?

Do you find the intense emotions you experience daily make for messy relationships, messy productivity, messy life?

This post is the first in an 8-part series over the next two months on creatives and mental health. I don’t write this as one with all the answers but one who is on the journey. I experienced a severe chemical depression in 2004 that resulted in medical treatment. I also have an ongoing diagnosis of panic disorder, so I have been in the trenches. I want to get a discourse going. Bring this subject out of the shadows and into the light of day.

Realizing the connection between your emotions, mental health and your creative temperment may help your productivity and your daily life. So we’re going to go there.

Stories of famous creatives who struggled with issues like depression, bipolar, panic disorder, etc. abound: Michelangelo, Hemingway, Styron, Piaf, Plath, Van Gogh, Beethoven, Woolf, Kerouac, Dickinson, Asimov, and Streisand, just to name a few.

Part of this may be explained by DNA. Scientists have discovered in the brain scans of creatives and mental patients a similar brain activity. In both groups there is a flood of uncensored information because of a lack of a certain kind of receptor in the thalamus. So we really do see things differently than other people.

Creativity is known to be associated with increased risk of depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.  People who have mental illness in their family have a greater chance of having high creativity. You might have to give your ‘crazy’ Aunt Edna some credit in your next book dedication. There has also been a long-standing cultural mythology of the eccentric creative as a bit mentally unhinged that artistic personalities have to overcome.

Researcher Mihaly Csikczentmihalyi says:

“If I had to express in one word what makes their (creatives) personalities different from others, it’s complexity. They show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes; instead of being an “individual,” each of them is a “multitude. Like the color white that includes all colors, they tend to bring together the entire range of human possibilities within themselves. Creativity allows for paradox, light, shadow, inconsistency, even chaos –and creative people experience both extremes with equal intensity.”

No wonder in that extreme intensity come intense emotions

Creatives are pre-wired to experience circumstances more intensely. We process these intense feelings through our art, our creativity, our innovation. Our highs are higher, our lows are lower. The elevator from high to low feelings can drop dramatically or explode out of the ceiling like an emotional Wonka-vator. Our anger outward becomes rage, our anger inward becomes spiraling depression.

Some of the mental health issues we’ll talk about in this blog series are: depression, anxiety and panic disorders, addictive behaviors, OCD, ADHD, hypersensitivity, boundary issues, internalization, PTSD, and artistic paranoid jealousy. Disorder has a very negative connotation, but it is dis-order, out of place, not out of mind.

I believe that mental health challenges are not any different than physical health challenges. Understanding, compassion, and access to treatment should be the same as any health issue. I also believe at times emotional struggles may boil down to Resistance.

Resistance can come from outside forces, but most often is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Julia Cameron addresses this in The Artist’s Way:

“Creativity requires faith. Faith requires that we relinquish control. This is frightening, and we resist it. Our resistance to our creativity is a form of self- destruction. We throw up roadblocks on our own path. Why do we do this? In order to maintain an illusion of control. Depression, like anger and anxiety, is resistance, and it creates dis-ease. This manifests itself as sluggishness, confusion, “I don’t know…” The truth is , we do know and we know that we know.” 

Steven Pressfield in Do The Work refers to Resistance this way:

“Resistance cannot be seen, heard, touched or smelled. But it can be felt. We experience it as an energy field radiating from a work-in-potential. Resistance is a repelling force. It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work. Resistance is insidious. Resistance will tell you anyting to keep you from doing your work. It will perjure, fabricate, falsify; seduce, bully, cajole. Resistance is protean. It will assume any form, if that’s what it takes to deceive you.” 

Whether it’s Resistance or a medical situation, creatives may have more tendency to emotional turbulence and mental health issues, but it doesn’t mean we have to accept the unpleasant consequences. We can admit we need assistance, and take care of ourselves.

When we live out the best life we can, our creativity is less hindered and we can create our best art. It’s okay to have emotions, but don’t let emotions have you and steal your best life.

Question: Do you think mental health struggles are strictly biochemical or does Resistance play a part?

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22 thoughts on “Mental Health Series: How To Harness Your Creative Temperament and Stay Sane, Married and Sober

  1. Hi Kristin! I love the article and picture of the ferocious male. Hope that isn’t YOUR husband :o). Though I’ve never had any real anxiety issues, I have had to cope with bouts of depression over the years. It first kicked in years ago when my father passed away. I’d never had to deal with that kind of grief in my life. I had four young sons and homeschooled, so I was with them 24/7; rarely got any kind of break. We had recently moved out of state, so I had no friends, no church family and thought I would lose my mind. Well, I sort of did.

    I don’t believe all mental health issues are biochemical, but in my situation, the depression kicked in–chemically–as a direct result of all the stress I was under. There is quite a bit of research supporting that theory. There is also a history of it on my mother’s side of the family and they were all very much “creatives,” as you say. The link is undeniable. But on to speculate about your question, and I’m assuming you mean in reference to writing or artistic endeavors.

    I cringe at the idea of asking the way over-used question, but here it is: Is it kind of like “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Do I not write BECAUSE I’m already (chemically/hormonally) depressed, or do I become depressed because I’m resisting putting my tush in the seat and just doing it? A true lack of discipline. Am I understanding the comparison correctly?

    I do think they feed off each other. But I know sometimes I just can’t write when my heart and mind are fretting or worrying about something, especially if the piece I want to write about is supposed to be lighthearted. So I put it off, and off, and off. Then I get even further down in the dumps. It really is vicious cycle.

    In the past few years, I’ve been learning that writing is not just something I love to do, I believe it’s something God has called me to do. So I don’t just do it whenever I feel like it; I do it because I know I’m supposed to and that there are words God wants me to say for the benefit of others. It’s been a real struggle because I can’t stand sitting in one place for very long. Great, huh? A writer who doesn’t like to sit! Anyway, I’m learning to be more disciplined and get a little done each day regardless of my highs or lows.

    It’s a great topic and I hope more people respond so we can learn from each other. By the way I also am a “recovering pessimist” and love using sarcasm in my writing. Although I have to watch that it doesn’t get too negative. It’s a great tool and can be so funny; kind of Dave Barry style.

    Well, sorry for writing so much, but it was definitely a fun question and one I struggle with daily. Have a great day,

    Ginny

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  2. Thanks so much for stopping by, Ginny, and for your transparent and thoughtful comment. :)

    I agree with you that sometimes the chemical part of depression kicks in after life-altering events. Part of what brought my major episode on was financial instability due to job loss, losing our family home, and having to move to a different state to remedy lack of finances. Loneliness, worry and stress became paralyzing chemical depression. Intense emotions over long periods of time can change brain wave patterns according to those who examine such things. If that’s so, you can see why highly creative folks might be more susceptible, since they start from a point of in general experiencing emotions more intensely.

    You stated the question perfectly, and it does boil down to a chicken-or-egg problem. I know I’ve dealt with both sides: having no motivation to write and having feelings of failure because of the lack of motivation. That in turn brings feelings of guilt, anger, depression, and then even greater lethargy sets in. Then it can start creeping into other areas of life. Then there are times when I’m already experiencing depression or anxiety over a life situation, and it creeps into my writing productivity. A vicious circle indeed!

    I’m so glad you feel a calling to write. It seems that would keep you persevering in those low times. I believe God has a call and destiny for each one of us, and when we find that ‘groove’ great things can happen! :)

    No apologies for ‘writing so much’, I love it when people interact and share on the blog! You are welcome to comment as much as you like. Please stop by anytime. :)

    BTW, photo is not hubby, my Keeper Hubby has a larger mouth. ;)

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    • Thanks, Kristin. I’ll be stopping by to see how it’s going. Hope you get more comments because it’s a great topic. Your poor hubby; that’s GOT to be a lot of dental work! :o). Take care.

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  3. I’m back from a long vacation and did a lot of reading including Stephen Pressfield’s Turning Pro so I’m fired up to discuss. I suffered from depression for almost a year ten years ago due to a roller coaster of life changing events that wore me down ( I didn’t even realize it was happening until I could barely function) — so yes, I do believe that depression has a chemical basis, that it is an illness and an illness we can heal. I’m not sure that resistance has a chemical basis. I think it’s more ” human nature” and the “nature” of creatives. We often resist things that are good for us. The weight loss industry depends on it:)
    Great topic, looking forward to this series.

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    • “I think it’s more “human nature” and the “nature” of creatives.”

      Great statement, Kate! I agree with you that creatives do seem to have a ‘nature’ of self-sabotage, stopping ourselves from doing the very things we want to do. Is it fear-based, afraid of failure, or could it be because our writing, our creations, our art is an expression of ourselves and when we open ourselves to others through our art it’s subconsciously the last thing we want to do, but at the same time, must do?

      Maybe I’m trying to think too deeply about this, but thanks for getting me thinking. ;)

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  4. sllynn

    I’ve also been down this road, with some not-so-fun forays into severe depression and panic attacks. I struggled with mine until I finally figured out what worked for me, and now my issues seem to be relegated to minor depressive dips that hit me on a regular basis (they tend to last for a few months at a time every other year or so).

    I think some of the panic issues were definitely aggravated by my creative side, as my brain churns out a massive amount of crap, and for someone fighting a panic disorder, it can trigger those attacks, or just make them worse. I was an expert at imagining what the worst possible scenario could be

    Strangely, writing has helped calm a lot of these dips and attacks, though–almost leveling me out and offering a way to process and deal with what I’m feeling. :)

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    • I have a very dear friend who suffers with panic attacks. They are severely debilitating and prevent her from doing many things in life. Would you be willing to share how you handle those, if they’re under control, or anything else so I could pass those ideas on to her? Thanks so much.

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      • sllynn

        Sure thing! The main point to understand in a panic disorder is that the underlying cause is unexpressed anger. Anger at yourself, anger at someone else, anger at the universe or life in general. All of that emotion has to come out somewhere, and when it gets bottled up enough, your body falls into depression, and that energy starts coming out as an anxiety attack.

        There are certain steps to take. First, if you feel an anxiety attack coming on, let it happen. Don’t fight it, don’t struggle against it, just let that emotion work its way out of your system–it’s kind of like cleaning sludge out of pipes. You can journal through it, you can go for a walk, you can clean the house obsessively, but don’t fight it, and most importantly, don’t fear it. Learning not to fear them was the key for me. I understand I’m not dying, I’m not going crazy, there is nothing wrong with me–i’m just getting rid of unneccessary emotion.

        That helps with the short term. Longer term, you need to find ways to deal with the depression and the anger. I, of course, recommend journaling, but it can also be incredibly helpful to speak with a licensed counselor or support group. Exercise, especially yoga, can help with the depression, along with acupuncture from a qualified caregiver. Whatever you need to do to get to the bottom of the anger and the underlying issues causing the problems, you need to do it.

        It isn’t easy to manage, but it can be done! Don’t give up! There is always hope, and there is always a way out of the darkness. :)

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      • Thank you SO much. I’ll cut and paste it and send it on to her. She has done a few things and is doing somewhat better, but I think this additional info will be helpful to her. I know FOR SURE she has a lot of unexpressed anger toward her parents, and just knowing that might lead her to some answers. Thanks again!

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      • Sllynn has given some great tips to dealing with panic attacks. From my experience I would just add 4 things: 1) don’t be afraid or ashamed to talk to medical and psychological professionals to get advice 2) exercise leading up to (you can feel it build) and during a panic attack can help disperse the nervous energy – especially exercise you don’t have to think about, like walking, hiking, jogging, running. 3) Avoid negative people and overloading on negative input like being a news junkie (guilty of this one in the past) 4) Deep breathing at the onset can make a world of difference. It sends lots of oxygen to the limbs where the panic energy seems to be the most uncomfortable at times (example: tingling arms make you think you’re having a heart attack, then your brain kicks into unbridled overdrive) I hope this advice can help your friend, Ginny. A good support system such as a good friend like you will also help her more than you know. :)

        Stay tuned in the coming weeks as we talk about anxiety and panic in more detail. Maybe they’ll be more great discussions that will be a help to your friend. :)

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  7. Marquita Martin

    As a long-term chronic sufferer of depression I have tried various ways of dealing with it. I have to say that anti-depressants do not help me. They take away the feeling of depression, but it is still there, lurking behind a wall in my mind. Unfortunately, that wall also keeps me from being able to write. Eventually, my mind insists on doing away with that wall which can be very dangerous, i.e. suicidal ideation that’s unbearable. I’ve chosen not to go there with medication. I know that, for me, exercise, not eating a lot of sugar, and getting involved with things, works better than drugs. I also know that depression is something I will have to deal with forever, in varying intensity, so I work through it. But one day I might not be able to push through it, there is always the terrible “what if”. It’s something I’ve learned to live with.

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    • Ginny

      Hi Marquita! I’ve concluded the same thing. I was on anti-depressants for years and began to feel like a zombie. It hit me one day that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d cried, and that just isn’t normal. Now, I may cry more often, but I also laugh harder and have real feelings back again, which I love.

      Like you, I also use exercise, healthy diet, involvement with my church, family, and friends to keep me on the right track. You and I may not have the strength at some point to “push through it,” but God ALWAYS has enough to pull us through. We are all here for a reason and when we realize what that reason is, our lives are filled with purpose, and no matter how painful things get, we CAN get through it.

      Ginny

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  8. Pingback: Mental Health Series: Depression and Bipolar – 13 Ways To Push Back At The Dark Side | kristin nador writes anywhere

  9. Wow, Kristin. My mouth was wide open reading this post. Not only does this help me better understand myself, but it helps me better understand my son who is extremely creative and emotional in much the same way as me. Good stuff here. Following your blog now.

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  10. Pingback: Mental Health Series: Emerging From The Panic Room of Anxiety Disorders | kristin nador writes anywhere

  11. Left-Brained Business for Write-Brained People

    This strikes a big chord with me, and I’ve been thinking about this off-and-on since I read this post weeks ago because I’m dealing almost daily with a very depressed family member while I’m TRYING to be creative. I know that’s not exactly what this blog is about, but it’s another angle I thought I would bring up just in case you needed this kind of feedback. Staying creative can be difficult no matter the situation–adding depression in any measure just makes the progress slope significantly steeper. And regarding your question, as far as my family member goes, that person’s resistance to the forms of treatment are making it difficult for everyone to help. This person wants a magic pill to make everything perfect, and there’s no perfectly magic pill out there. The person is a introvert, so doesn’t want to share anything with the therapist, then when angry uses me and a few others to obsess over the things that should be discussed with the therapist–never realizing that this is what should be told to the therapist instead of lay people. I don’t know if this is the resistance you meant, but it definitely tied with your point that people with depressive disorders think and see things differently. Good luck on your journey. I look forward to reading more in future blogs.

    Joanie

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