From Anxiety to Creativity/Spirituality

My clients and e-course members are some of the wisest, most compassionate, creative, kind, and loving people with whom I’ve ever come into contact. They’re interesting, intelligent, introspective, and curious. Are there any adjectives I’ve left out?! Oh, just one: they’re also the most anxious.

It’s an interesting paradox of life that opposites are often paired together : We cannot have daytime without night or light without darkness. Spring and summer cannot exist without autumn and winter. We cannot feel true joy without opening our hearts to pain, grief, and loss. And the multi-dimensional richness of human beings generally includes straddling the apparent opposites of the positive characteristics I’ve listed above with the darker territories of the human psyche.

And now I’m about the contradict myself: anxiety, instead of being a permanent state of psyche, is a doorway into deeper growth and expanded consciousness. In my younger years I used to believe that the angst-filled artist was an inevitable and unchanging fact; in other words, that true creativity didn’t exist without suffering. I no longer ascribe to this limiting belief but instead see that creativity can be linked to emotional health and the ability to tap into a spiritual wellspring. Has beautiful art emerged from suffering? Yes. But perhaps those pieces of artwork were stepping stones along the route to health, necessary expressions of a stage of that artist’s emotional growth and that as the artist’s inner world evolved, the artwork would evolve as well.

Anxiety is not a fixed state but rather is closely linked to the creative and spiritual realms. Like two sides of the same coin, most anxious types learn, after uncovering self-limiting false beliefs and replacing them with the truth, that they can transpose their anxiety into creativity/spirituality. (I’m including creativity and spirituality as one unit as I believe they exist on a continuum as well.) Living with anxiety is like living in a hell-realm, but when you find the courage to discover the root causes of the anxiety, which are usually linked to false beliefs about self-worth, how safe it is to feel your feelings, and the truth about love, the anxiety’s gifts are revealed.

I’ve never met a highly anxious person that wasn’t also highly sensitive. It’s for this reason that the following quote often comes to mind, not only in working with my clients, but also in parenting my son and understanding myself and my closest loved ones:

“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him… a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create — so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating.”

– Pearl S. Buck

What if, as a child, your intense sensitivity had been honored instead of squashed? What if you had had an emotional guide, someone to say, “It’s okay to feel,” and then taught you simple ways to manage the huge feelings that were coursing through your body? What if you had been taught to express yourself fully, through tears, through art, through woodworking, through whatever passion wanted to be unleashed?

And that’s one component of doing inner work: to becoming the loving mother and father that you never had. (And this isn’t about vilifying your parents; they did the best they could.) It’s about holding that young, exquisitely sensitive child in your arms and saying, “It’s okay to feel anything you need to feel.” It’s about being a loving guide and an emotional mentor to yourself, so that you teach your inner child that feelings are just feelings, they can’t swallow you up or kill you, and that the difficult ones will pass just as the pleasant ones do.

The more I work with my clients the more I’m convinced that the majority of anxiety is a young, terrified child screaming out for attention in the only way she or he knows how. Since she was never offered words to articulate her experience, her painful feelings mutate into a thought like, “What if I’m gay?” or “What if I abuse my child?” or “What if I don’t love my partner enough?” or into addictions to food, alcohol, media, or drugs. It’s often during transitions, when the defensive veils are softened to reveal the vulnerable and emotional places inside, that the latent anxiety rises to the surface. The scared child, feeling out of control, alone, and overwhelmed by the negative running commentary that you’ve been telling her/him for years, screams out through the body and stops eating, sleeping, and functioning.

And that’s when the real work begins. That’s when, in the darkest night you’ve ever known, you reach out for information, support, and guidance. That’s when you learn, for the first time in your life, that real change only happens once you take full responsibility for your emotional well-being, which requires nothing short of a fierce, daily commitment to exploring the false beliefs and negative thoughts that you’re telling yourself from morning until night. That’s when you peel back the layers of fantasy and realize that no one can save you, rescue you, or fix you; it’s up to you and you alone to do the work that must be done to heal and find wholeness, fulfillment, and joy, possibly for the first time in your life.

I also incorporate a strong creative element into my work with clients. As I said, most highly anxious types are also highly creative and, given the right tools and encouragement, can utilize their creativity to assist in their healing process as they cross the bridge from anxiety to creativity.

If you’re engaged in a creative project, remind yourself before you go to sleep and when you first wake up in the morning to focus on the project. You have more control over your thoughts than you think! You might not be able to control the first thought that enters you mind upon awakening (again, a time when the veils are lifted and a common time to experience anxiety), but you can control how you respond to the first thought and choose what your second thought will be. If you’re not engaged in a creative project, choose a spiritual mantra or comforting passage to memorize as your anti-anxiety spiritual medication. When you practice this enough, it will become second nature, much like finding that you have a song stuck in your mind.

When I’m writing a blog post or creating an e-course, I’ll fall asleep and wake up with ideas percolating up from my unconscious. It’s some of the most invigorating and fulfilling times of my life. When I don’t have an article or creative project on hand, I’ll learn a new Hebrew prayer or song and before I know it, I’m waking up with beautiful music and ancient words soothing my soul. When I forget to do my spiritual homework, I’m prone to anxious thoughts just like most of you. But, after years of hard work, I’m able to catch the first thought and change its course fairly quickly.

People who are prone to anxiety often stay busy as a way to distract themselves from the anxious thoughts. My clients will often say, “My anxiety is worse in the morning or on weekends when I don’t have much to do. An idle mind is the Devil’s playground.” Yes, busyness does keep the anxiety at bay, but it doesn’t address the problem by the root. You can only keep yourself busy for so long before the anxiety needs to be pulled out by the roots by noticing the fear-based thoughts and false beliefs that are creating the anxiety, then replacing them with the truth and the good medicine of creativity and spirituality. In other words, it’s not just about filling up your brain and time with trivial distractions but filling your soul with an antidote that will act as a balm to the anxious soul.

What would you be doing with your time and energy if you weren’t a victim to your anxiety? Anxiety is an energy drain and it zaps the soul of life-force, creativity, and a spiritual serenity. And yet (here’s the contradiction again!), when you dive into the dark forest of anxiety you discover that it can be a doorway into creativity and spirituality. The key is in unveiling your sources of a solace – a poem, a mantra, a spiritual text, a song – and remembering that you have the will power to transpose the negative frequency of anxiety into the high frequency of creativity and spirituality.

I’ll end with a poem I wrote in the height of my anxiety many years ago. Poetry, both writing and reading it, has been my solace since I first broke through to the dark layers of my unconscious as a teenager. This poem blew through me during an anxiety attack and helped me find peace each time I recited it in my mind:

Poetry dissolves anxiety–

it sets my mind adrift in formlessness and

reminds my soul of what is it meant to be.

Poetry lulls me in her sea crest and upon her wing,

she opens

this seamless world

this fluid world, where

phrases drop whole as if from

cloud or sky.

I do not ask why–

knowing that when I

slip under the surface of things

the blue scarved language blows away the peril,

like a wind it casts aside uncertainty and brings me

mouth to mouth with angels,

where I find that I can breathe.

What does your anxiety want to say? Imagine there’s a mouth on the tip of your anxiety and invite it to open, speak, pray, move. Let’s hear its song.

8 comments to From Anxiety to Creativity/Spirituality

  • Janelle

    Love this! This is so true for me

    “To him… a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death.”

    I don’t have a middle ground, I have to be extremely content or very sad….I don’t have a middle ground. This is something that I continue to work on after the wedding : )

  • Ashley

    oh Sheryl! this is BEAUTIFUL! your poem in particular. so soothing. so gentle. so accepting. thank you for the work you do and share with others.

  • sarah

    this is amazing. i was especially touched by your opening paragraph; it’s nice to be reminded of the light when the darkness can feel so consuming. i know i have so much to offer this world and that anxiety can easily get the best of me. but with your support, i’m learning that I’m not my anxiety. it’s great working with you. 🙂

  • Judy

    Thank-you Sheryl again for a great article & I believe there are no mistakes in the world…many of us “sensitive” people are going through anxiety right now as the world shifts…making us feel even more vulnerable…I have been having this expereince for the past week or so….so your article had perfect timing.
    I also agree that at least for me that when I am not creative I am clearly more anxious…nice to read about the correlations…
    Thank-you …Namaste

  • I agree completely with you Sheryl. I realized this summer that my creativity was my link to Source and the spiritual connection I had been seeking all my life. Now when I get up in the morning and go to sleep I feel a calmness I have never known before. Like you said, I often wake up with entire ideas implanted in my brain, or solutions to problems, or just comforting thoughts about setting my intentions for a joyful, productive, creative, and inspiring day.

    Rather than stress about everything I NEED to do, I honor my feelings and take time to do what feels right. I do the things that feed my soul, and spark my creativity rather than shut it down….and I think it is making me a better person, parent, wife, friend…etc.

    I am about to engage in a 7 week course in Kabbalah 101. I like what they are saying…am hoping it is going to keep me on track and provide me with “like-minded” people as I explore this deeper connection to myself and others.

  • Thank you for your lovely comments.

    Liz, I love what you’ve shared here and I particularly look forward to hearing about your Kabbalah class!

  • Sheryl dear, Thank you so much for this post. Again you and your words come to me in the dead of night to inspire and encourage me to continue on my path. These words resonates so strongly for me and speaks to a younger version of myself as an artist, trapped in anxiety and fears that I remember, but no longer serve.

    The first and last time we communicated was a year and a half ago when I responded about a post on transitions and moving. It was a very valuable exchange for me and it reinforced what I knew from my Waldorf training about story and laying the foundation for changes in a child’s life, to reach the child where they are at in their imagination. I was already telling oral stories to help prepare my daughter for the move and our correspondance further inspired me to create an actual book with a story and phots to document where her life had been and where we were going in her real life. It worked like magic and the transition went so smooth that friends around us still talk to us about how that was handled. And I have a book now, waiting in my creative projects to be created into a more general storybook for any child going through a move… with a song, poetry verse and storyline… one of many of my creative projects that are begging me to get to. I am getting back to you, to thank you for you sharing your family moving story with me, which helped further our own story with our daughter.

    I am in the midst of a family baby moon right now and everything is precious with expansive and elastic time. I gave birth for the 2nd time on January 17th. And things are a.m.a.z.i.n.g. right now. Such a beautiful time with so many unexpected ripples and gifts and challenges and flow. Flow in life. In the beauty of the moment. And so so much love in my family bubble with our new baby daughter. And I am , as you know, in the midst of a huge transformation time… and your words come to me in between feedings, at a brief computer moment where I am checking for the first time in absolute days,… and I recognize a sister soul.

    I am choosing to break this container of 40day retreat to touch in with you because your words have reached me for a purpose in this stage of my retreat and I want to honor that. I am an artist, Waldorf teacher, facilitator of retreats combining the arts with contemplative and communication practices,… and a proud proud Mama of a 3 yr old and a brand new baby girl bundle… who is between worlds right now landing each day a bit more to grace us with her beautiful presence and love. I have been waiting for a long while for the right timing for all of my passions to come together to offer in the world and through this first 10 days since the birth of my 2nd daughter I have had such amazing experiences and insights into my life, being, as you know, the most open to the flow of life as a woman can be at this moment, and have experienced healings and oh, so so many things.

    I would like to speak with you from my cocoon, or after, at a point of your and mine convenience about what strikes me about yours and mine work and what I have been coming to realize in these last 10 powerful days of openness and pure state of what I am meant to be doing next.
    Please contact me through my e-mail.

    Looking forward to connecting again,
    Warmly, Shannon

  • sunnyday

    Wow! This is so true! Someone once told me that I am an anxious person because I am a creative person and that I should see my anxiety as a gift. It has taken time and work and now I do. I am always looking for new projects to tap into this creativity.