Creative Ways to Override Anxiety During Radical Change
Transform anxiety into creative energy through wonder.
Posted Sep 24, 2019
I was an anxious boy, often distracted, but (as is usually the case with restless children) quite imaginative. Ms. Leach reprimanded me more than once for drawing in my homework’s margins. No matter how hard I tried to refrain, my curious nature soon had me fidgeting in my seat until I was back to illustrating imaginary worlds on the inside covers of my textbooks.
Since then, I have learned much about daydreaming, focus, self-reflection, and the act of creation. I know now that I was like any kid brimming with energy and imagination, but with no outlet. And I’ve discovered since my elementary school days that the key to transforming that restless anxiety into creative energy is wonder.
Unfortunately, our capacity for wonder seems to atrophy as we age. As adults, we tend to exercise reason rather than imagination and replace the “what ifs” that drive our inquisitive nature with “what fors.” We go from doodles to slogging through datasheets, from playing make-believe to making time to breathe in our busy lives. We are conditioned to think rationally, set realistic expectations, plan for the worst, and thus, our "awe-some" curiosity withers.
Yet wonder is an invaluable skill to help us (especially as adults) define our evolving sense of self and navigate an increasingly complicated world. By cultivating a sense of wonder in our lives and in our work, we need not succumb to the pervasive anxiety and cynicism of our times. Instead, we can join fellow creatives in conversation and curiosity to find positive ways to disrupt conventional systems and encourage creative thinking.
The Age of Anxiety
In a world awash with fake news, prejudice, divisive politics, and natural disasters, pessimism seems to be the popular philosophy of the moment. We live in uncertain, tumultuous times. Unsurprisingly, this context corresponds to higher rates of anxiety than in years past. Today, it’s estimated that anxiety disorders affect 1 in 5 Americans, with Millenials being the most anxious generation.
Theories abound as to why we are more anxious, cynical, pessimistic than in decades past, but the strongest (in my opinion) is that Western society is more psychologically sensitive now that the pressure to survive has been lifted from us. What’s more, cultural shifts toward materialism and status direct us to chase after extrinsic goals rather than intrinsic ones like relationships, community, and purpose. We seek external meaning to direct our lives rather than take the time to develop an internal sense of purpose.
Cynicism arises as a natural response to our disquietude: it is a defense mechanism against the forces of life that we cannot control. In fact, a 2018 Pew study revealed that Americans have a rather dismal view of the future when it comes to politics, job prospects, environmental issues, and the economy. However, another poll found that a simple shift in perspective can solve for our pessimism. A 2019 Marist poll found that 60% of respondents were optimistic about the world, and when asked why, they spoke to their own personal lives. They looked inward.
The Case for Critical Optimism
In our jaded society, optimism is equated with ignorance but psychologist Steven Pinker sees it differently. In his book, Enlightenment Now, Pinker describes optimism as “the theory that all failures – all evils – are due to insufficient knowledge.” According to Pinker, an optimistic society is rooted in criticism (not blithe positivity), and its institutions are ever striving to find areas for improvement.
This kind of critical optimism balances the critic’s eye with the optimist’s enthusiasm. It allows us to look at our problems more objectively, replace anxiety with wonder, and navigate life’s challenges like scientists rather than cynics. But what is wonder exactly? Can adults actually cultivate something so ethereal? What's it for?
A Call to Wonder
Wonder is that subtle astonishment of the soul that both disorients and delights with new insight. In these times of flux, it is a quiet disruptor of our own biased ways of seeing ourselves and our world. And by exercising wonder, we can learn to live in (rather than escape from) this world.
As creatives, we’re called to rise to the times, not shrink from them. Sure, we’ll take our retreats for deep thinking and creating. But ultimately we can track wonder to shift some perspectives and practices for the better.
A call to wonder is about being more creative than reactive in this time of collective fertile confusion. It is about genuinely connecting with each other rather than insulating ourselves behind screens and cynicism. Here are my top five tools to override anxiety in these times of radical change:
1. Take terror to its extreme and imagine your Third Act.
When you feel that the plank of Reason falls from beneath you, try to entertain the worst possible outcomes. It sounds counter-intuitive to think of the worst when you’re afraid, but it’s a helpful exercise I taught myself 12 years ago and have since corroborated with research. If you fear losing your job, money, or reputation, then play it out in your imagination like a movie. Imagine your Third Act – that turning point in your movie when you rise like a phoenix from the ashes. Wonder charged by active imagination offers a far healthier approach to our times than letting anxiety paralyze us or make us pessimistic.
2. Transform anxiety into creative energy.
Curiosity redirects anxious energy toward problem solving and progress. Rather than worry over a situation, start asking questions. Whether it is the state of the economy, climate change, or an upcoming social gathering that’s got you stressed, you can convert your sense of helplessness into self-efficacy by getting curious. Try this “anxiety antidote” next time you start feeling uneasy.
3. Share the state of wonder.
Help other people – loved ones, friends, your creative packs – navigate this disruptive time with more emotional intelligence, creative action, and community engagement. Give them resources and tips, empathy and encouragement. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to share your own struggles or misgivings, and to ask for advice. Connection and collaboration is the solution to pessimism.
4. Feed your heart.
Know that it is fine, inevitable even, to feel creative tension. As hard as it may be, sit with and work through your discomfort. Our most profound work is often the most difficult to unpack, so take the time to reflect on it. Find your “flow,” that state of extended concentration that involves challenges which in turn call upon your best creative and cognitive faculties. Like any muscle, the more you exercise “flow,” the stronger it becomes. When you feed your heart, you give your best self what it most deserves: encouragement.
5. Seek mastery, not control.
Anxiety creeps up when we feel incompetent in the face of our desires. Especially when we feel so competent in other areas. List the skills you want to learn and get better at. Doing so objectifies the creative process in any field or medium. It helps you remember that lack of know-how is normal and that you can gain know-how that, in turn, will help you feel more agile, dextrous, and, yes, courageous on your creative quest. Then seek the right allies and mentors – for pay or not.