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How Anxiety Harms Creativity (And What to Do About It)

It is hard to be creative when you are overwhelmed, fearful, and exhausted.

Key points

  • Creative individuals are highly sensitive, which causes strengths and struggles.
  • Mental health issues such as anxiety disorders can hinder the ability to create.
  • Seeking help is crucial for artists struggling with mental health.
3935302 / Pixabay
Source: 3935302 / Pixabay

Artists, writers, and other creative people are some of our most sensitive people. Their sensitivity to our world helps them do their creative work. However, being highly sensitive comes with strengths and struggles.

Some people, including medical professionals, have found it tempting to romanticize mental health struggles and artistic temperament. After all, shouldn’t artists suffer for their art? (Answer: No.)

Some psychologists have conducted research hoping to find a connection between mental illness and creativity. Others have debunked this research as poorly executed and harmful to neurodivergent people.

Despite the research debates, one thing is certain: artists cannot create art when they are struggling with their mental health.

I interviewed novelist and visual artist Lauren Faulkenberry, who recently received a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder in her 40s, after decades of struggles. Her story shines a light on how anxiety harms creativity and what to do about it.

What Is Anxiety?

“Anxiety” is a catch-all term that refers to a variety of disorders recognized by the medical profession.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder is “a chronic state of severe worry and tension.” People with GAD struggle with excessive worrying, insomnia, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and more.

Other types of anxiety disorders include panic disorder and social anxiety disorder.

But if you deal with anxiety in your daily life, it’s fine to say “anxiety.” The people who matter to you know what you’re talking about.

As I write in my new book, A Light in the Tower: A New Reckoning with Mental Health in Higher Education, for me, “Anxiety felt like an itching all over my body, like my skin was too tight. I would have horrible nightmares, and then I wouldn’t sleep at all."

As a writer, anxiety affected my work. Driven by anxiety, “I would try to control things: writing a paper early, for example, so I wouldn’t have to worry about the assignment hanging over my head like the mythical sword. Friends thought I was just a fast writer. No—I was a worried one.”

Faulkenberry told me that her anxiety struggles include “feeling uneasy about not having enough back-up plans or mitigations in place, or feeling nervous or anxious about seeing family.”

She struggles with “being restless and nights with a head full of racing thoughts, so much so that I can’t get to sleep.” When these symptoms became so bad that she couldn’t do her work, she sought a diagnosis.

Artist, Interrupted

Faulkenberry is a full-time artist and novelist. She told me, “I write romance novels—I love a good story about falling in love—and create paintings, linocut prints, and mixed-media work.”

She was able to go full-time with her creative work starting in 2020. But, she told me, “I’ve been writing and making art as long as I can remember, and both have been a huge source of joy in my life. Creating is what gives me purpose and helps me connect with people.”

When her mental health suffered, so did her joy and purpose. She told me, “In the past, it’s been easy for me to lose track of time [in my art]. I’d lose myself in the work and feel energized by it.”

But lately, she said, things have changed: “In the last few years, it’s been harder and harder to get into that flow state where the work happens with ease. I get distracted much easier than I used to, and it’s hard for me to focus for long periods.”

Anxiety has affected Faulkenberry’s ability to concentrate, and she has been unable to be as creative because of it.

Even worse, she told me, “I feel like my brain is so cluttered by useless, nagging, intrusive thoughts that there’s not as much space for creativity anymore—which is frustrating and makes me sad.”

Anxiety has made her “exhausted and unable to sleep well.” And then, because she’s exhausted, she told me, “I’m unfocused and frustrated with my slow progress—which leads to overthinking and self-criticism.”

She describes her experience as “being trapped in a vicious cycle.”

For years, anxiety has eaten away at Faulkenberry’s creativity bit-by-bit by attacking her ability to concentrate, come up with ideas, rest and recharge, and view her work without being overly self-critical.

Faulkenberry needed help; she sought answers.

Diagnosis Found

Faulkenberry sought the help of a therapist, who diagnosed her with GAD in her mid-forties. When Faulkenberry received her diagnosis, she felt immense relief.

She said, “I felt relieved to be able to have a name for what had been bothering me for several years.”

Upon reflection, she said, “The more I learn about anxiety, the more I think that I’ve had it for a large part of my life, even as a young teen or child. I didn’t know what to call it.”

In fact, like many late-diagnosed adults, Faulkenberry used to feel like her symptoms were an ordinary part of life. She said, “I assumed that it was normal, that everyone felt these things.”

Once she had a diagnosis, she was able to research and find tools to help her get better. Before her diagnosis, she told me, “I felt like I didn’t know what to do with all of these overwhelming feelings, this lack of focus, and this lack of motivation.”

Now Faulkenberry has a therapist she trusts, a good support system, and some strategies to rebalance her life.

She told me, “I’m early into this diagnosis, but I’m feeling hopeful. I’ve already learned ways to work through these feelings that I’ve spent my whole life shoving down deep.”

Faulkenberry's creative community supports her: “I’ve been fortunate to be a part of a writers’ group that completely shifted my mindset in some amazing ways—and part of that was seeing that I wasn’t alone in these feelings.”

If you are an artist, writer, or other creative person struggling with your work, learn more about the terrible effects of insomnia, the true causes of procrastination (it’s not laziness!), and more. Don’t slip into a cycle of self-blame. Seek help, in whatever form is available to you.


Pryal, Katie Rose Guest. A Light in the Tower: A New Reckoning with Mental Health in Higher Education. University Press of Kansas, 2024.

Andreasen, Nancy C. “The Relationship between Creativity and Mood Disorders.” Clinical Research 10, no. 2 (2008).

Pryal, Katie Rose Guest. “The Creativity Mystique and the Rhetoric of Mood Disorders.” Disability Studies Quarterly 31, no. 3 (August 8, 2011).

Schlesinger, Judith. “Creative Mythconceptions: A Closer Look at the Evidence for the ‘Mad Genius’ Hypothesis.” Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts 3, no. 2 (May 2009): 62–72.

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