Anxiety is a product of imagination. We imagine potential scenarios in which all sorts of negative things might happen. This can manifest in various types of anxiety, such as a fear of flying: imagining all they ways a plane might crash. Or a fear of heights, spiders, confined places, etc. It’s the same with the type of fear I struggled with: social anxiety.
My mind would imagine social situations, and I’d have entire conversations in my head: replaying past conversations, wishing I’d said or done something differently, trying to interpret the other person’s words and actions and what they might have thought about me. Also imagining future social interactions and what I should say to someone and how they might respond. I would do this all the time, often without even realizing it. I would ruminate, on and on, unable to stop.
Imagining conversations in your head is not necessarily a bad thing—it’s only when it’s accompanied by anxiety and rumination that it becomes a problem. That’s where cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and meditation come in—by helping you to recognize when you’re ruminating so then you can learn to stop.
People who suffer the most from anxiety tend to be those with the most vivid imaginations, such as artists and creatives. For me, when I would have those imaginary conversations in my head, they would seem so real, like a movie playing in my head. I assumed this was normal and everyone did the same, but I later realized that wasn’t the case. I had a more active imagination than most, which made my anxiety worse, unfortunately; but a vivid imagination can be put to good use: creating art.
I was always interested in artistic things like photography, drawing, music, and movies. But I was never any good at drawing or painting, or making my own art. I never really learned how to foster my imagination and artistic creativity as a child. At my school, all everyone cared about was sports. I always felt like I was an artist at heart, but I had yet to find my medium—that was until I discovered creative writing.
For whatever reason, the schools I went to and the English classes I took never assigned creative writing. I was simply never exposed to it until college when I took a screenwriting class. I instantly fell in love. Screenwriting came so naturally to me. It felt like the art form I was always searching for, combining all my talents and interests. I always loved movies, but I couldn’t act nor did I want to, but writing was something I could do.
My ability to vividly imagine conversations in my head finally came to good use. Essentially, that’s all screenwriting is: imagined conversations between people driven by a plot. Social anxiety often came from my frustration with being unable to have conversations and social interactions go in real life as I planned them in my head. I would always “mess up” or be too afraid to say something. But in screenwriting, I had complete control. I could create scenes and conversations and social interactions where the characters said and did exactly what I wanted them to.
In real life, when I imagined potential conversations and what I would say, the conversations never went as I imagined they would. But in screenwriting, whatever I imagined came to life. My characters would say and do the things I wished I could say and do myself.
I took the rumination and imagination caused by my anxiety and redirected it toward a positive use by creating art. And I never looked back. Not only was I able to exercise my anxiety through art, but I also found my life’s calling. Whether screenwriting or novels, short stories, comics, poems, or songs—the medium doesn’t quite matter—my purpose in life is writing fictional stories. As long as I can do that, I will be happy, whether or not I make any money or have any kind of critical success. Sure, I’d like to have those things, but ultimately, I write for an audience of one: myself. If you’re not creating art to fulfill yourself then you’re not creating art; you’re creating a commercial product.
I don’t know that I would say art is a “cure” for anxiety (CBT and meditation were essential), but creating art is certainly a positive way to exercise anxiety. Find a creative medium (of which there are many) and focus your imagination and anxiety toward creation and art. The process of creating could help yourself, and the creation could be shared to help others.