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OCD

How Being Creative Can Help in the Battle Against OCD

Accessing creativity can generate strategies to counter OCD.

Key points

  • Tapping into creativity can help generate novel strategies for dealing with OCD.
  • Anxious thoughts and fear can interfere with creativity.
  • Try to conciously focus on thinking and acting creatively to purposely confront OCD symptoms.
Kindel Media/Pexels
Source: Kindel Media/Pexels

Most people imagine the stereotypical sufferer of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder as repressed, inflexible, and pedantic. Of the many traits associated with OCD, “creativity” is not necessarily one of them. And while a surprising number of creative people wrestle with obsessive thoughts and behaviors, the actual symptoms of OCD are anathema to creative expression. But breaking through OCD to access the creative self doesn’t just allow sufferers to tap into a valuable cognitive resource, it can also generate novel strategies for fighting OCD itself.

In a purely pragmatic sense, creativity thinking is a valuable strategy for solving problems and enriching our lives. “Creative ideas are both novel and useful (Hennessey & Amabile, 2010), and novelty is the key distinguishing feature of creativity beyond ideas that are merely well done” Mueller et al.). In uncertain situations, particularly those that trigger OCD symptoms, creativity can often inspire new strategies that produce resolution.

Anxiety and Fear Can Interfere with Creativity

However, it can be difficult to access the benefits of creativity, especially when we’re anxious. In Inhibition of Cognition, Colin MacLeod reveals that anxiety can activate “a pattern suggesting a general impairment of inhibitory processing” that would allow us to ignore irrelevant, distracting thoughts; while Daniel Kahneman observes that, “Too much concern about how well one is doing in a task sometimes disrupts performance by loading short-term memory with pointless anxious thoughts” (Thinking, Fast and Slow).

Some of the pointless, anxious thoughts that can interfere with creativity include the instinctive physiological response to fear. Paul Ekman explains that, “In fear there is an impulse to freeze if that will avoid detection, or to get out of harm's way if it won't (Emotions Revealed).

Anxiety encourages us to move cautiously, to play defensively, to fall back on familiar strategies even when they aren’t useful. Henri Bergson’s The Creative Mind describes how we “install ourselves ordinarily in immobility, where we find a basis for practice…our mind has an irresistible tendency to consider the idea it most frequently uses to be the clearest. That is why immobility seems clearer to it than mobility….”

This instinct to freeze when threatened interferes with creativity in a variety of ways. “The requirement that creative ideas contain novelty can also promote a tension in evaluators’ minds when they judge whether to pursue an idea… the more novel an idea, the more uncertainty can exist about whether an idea is practical, useful, error-free, and reliably reproduced" (Amabile, 1996). When endorsing a novel idea, people can experience failure (Simonton, 1984), perceptions of risk (Rubenson & Runco, 1995), social rejection when expressing the idea to others (Moscovici, 1976; Nemeth, 1986), and uncertainty about when their idea will reach completion (Metcalfe, 1986) (Mueller et al.).

This self-reinforcing cycle of fear and creative suppression creates a cruel paradox: “Uncertainty spurs the search for and generation of creative ideas (Audia & Goncalo, 2007; Tiedens & Linton, 2001), yet our findings reveal that uncertainty also makes us less able to recognize creativity, perhaps when we need it most” (Mueller et al.).

OCD symptoms are not only triggered by fear but also by disgust—thoughts of illness, contamination, and corruption. Unfortunately, research suggests that the feelings of discomfort and vulnerability inherent to creative expression can make us experience disgust on an almost subconscious level. Mueller et al. reveal that “participants in each high uncertainty condition associated words like 'vomit,' 'poison,' and 'agony,' more so with creativity than practicality.” Bringing a creative impulse from the mind into the external world violates the boundary between the self and the other; it may remind us of a bodily discharge or an injury that precedes an infection, and OCD can exploit this unease.

An uncertain situation can trigger the anxiety that interferes with creative problem-solving, while attempting to implement a creative solution can make us feel queasy and vulnerable. And so the OCD sufferer is confronted with a perverse dilemma, where the disgust and anxiety inflicted by an uncertain situation deactivate the skills we need to confront and resolve the uncertainty.

Creatively Confronting OCD

Because the obsessive-compulsive symptoms that block creativity are often automatic, the best answer is to purposefully confront them and consciously focus on creative thinking. Writing down random ideas, indulging in a creative hobby like art or music, brainstorming with others, physically moving to a different environment, or employing unconventional tools to attack the problem—any of these strategies may help disrupt the obsessive-compulsive cycle and inspire novel, creative thoughts and approaches.

Just as Mueller et al. explained, productive creativity demands both novelty and utility—deliberately implementing untested strategies, even if they’re counterintuitive, then evaluating them and applying your findings to the next round of problem-solving. These are vital skills; not only useful in overcoming the cognitive obstacles caused by OCD symptoms but potentially even therapeutically, in confronting the disorder itself. OCD installs itself in rigidity, repetition, futility—and creativity can break those cycles.

References

Henri Bergson. The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics. Trans. Mabelle L. Andison. Mineola, NY, Dover Publications, 2007. p. 154.

Henri Bergson. The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics. Trans. Mabelle L. Andison. Mineola, NY, Dover Publications, 2007. p. 154.

Paul Ekman. Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life. 2nd edition. New York, St. Martins Press, 2007. p. 61.

Daniel Kahneman. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. p. 41.

Colin M. MacLeod (2007). "The Concept of Inhibition in Congnition." In David S. Gorfein and Colin M. MacLeod (Eds.) Inhibition in Cognition. American Psychological Association, 2007, pp. 7-8.

Jennifer S. Mueller, Shimul Melwani, and Jack A. Goncalo. “The bias against creativity: Why people desire but reject creative ideas” Cornell University, ILR School site: h p://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/articles/450/, pp. 3, 10, 11. Accessed 08/10/2021.

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