Why Are so Many Creative People Anxious and/or Depressed?

Introducing Kafka by R. Crumb

Consciousness, or what makes humans human, is inherently tied to imagination. Imagination allows you to predict possible futures before they happen—be it what a predator such as a tiger will do (harm you), what a rock could turn into (a tool), or what a seed could become if you plant it (food). That type of future-thinking birthed agriculture and civilization, and it all stemmed from imagination—imagining what not yet is but could be. No other species can do that (that we know of).

What are artists and creatives but the most imaginative of humans? Because creative people have the most imagination, they are constantly thinking about what could be. Sometimes those possibilities are negative, which can make them anxious and/or depressed. 

Creative people have the gift and curse of a vivid imagination. They can think of wonderful things that could be, but as a byproduct, they might also think about the horrible things that could be—either about themselves, their family, society, the planet, or the entire universe. Being overly conscious of those negative possibilities will almost inevitably result in anxiety and depression.

Imagination is also why creative people such as artists and writers are generally more considerate and empathetic. They can better imagine what it would be like to be another person, so they care more for other people—all people, regardless of race, gender, nationality, etc. That is also why most artists tend to be more liberal. They are naturally more open-minded and imaginative, allowing them to have more empathy for others.

I’ve been highly imaginative my entire life. I’d say my imagination is my greatest gift, but I wasted my gift of a vivid imagination for my entire childhood. I had no artistic mentors. I was never exposed to creative writing, so I didn’t have a medium to positively express and cultivate my imagination. Instead, I used my creativity to imagine negative social situations which fueled my anxiety. I would imagine entire conversations in my head between myself and others and became frustrated by my inability to enact those conversations in real life. I’d replay the interactions in my mind, imagining that the other people were thinking negative things about me.

It wasn’t until I took a screenwriting class in college that I was exposed to creative writing for the first time, and I instantly fell in love. It came so naturally to me. I finally had a positive force to redirect my imagination and creativity toward. Once I started to try to think of stories for movies, my mind took off. I couldn’t stop thinking of story ideas, and I haven’t stopped since.

When I’m home alone writing, my mind runs wild, imagining stories, plots, and characters, which helps me create art in the form of novels and screenplays. But when I’m out meeting people in public, my mind continues to run wild, imagining stories about what they think and what mistakes I might be making, which gives me social anxiety. It’s difficult for an imaginative person to selectively turn their imagination on and off. To do that, you need to become more mindful of your thoughts and be able to detach yourself from them—let the unhelpful negative thoughts go. That is the purpose of meditation: to gain better control of your thoughts and emotions.

Can an artist have a vivid imagination in their art without vivid anxiety and depression in their life? Yes, I think that’s possible, but it might require self-work through meditation and/or therapy. I for one have been able to subdue my anxiety while maintaining my artistic creativity. In fact, I now feel more creative than ever while feeling less anxiety than ever. I still feel anxiety, but I’ve developed better practices for managing it, through cognitive behavioral therapy, journaling, and mindfulness meditation. With those tools I can more easily focus my imagination toward art rather than anxiety.

It may be a constant struggle throughout an artist’s life, but I think anyone can remain creative while curbing anxiety and depression. Also, non-artists who suffer from anxiety and depression may be able to find better avenues to focus their imaginations toward, such as business. Elon Musk is not an artist, but he is extremely creative in thinking about what companies could exist and be profitable based on where humanity and the planet could and should go in the future. 

Creativity is imagining something that does not exist then creating it. That “something” could be a song, poem, book, movie, painting, clothing/fashion trend, jewelry, furniture, architectural design, startup business, piece of technology, philosophical idea, scientific theory, economic system, or form of government. Creativity applies to every aspect of life. 

Imagination is the most important and valuable human skill—the one least likely to be replaced by robots in the future. If you are anxious, you are by definition imaginative, so find your creative calling. Like my younger self, you might be a lurking artist who has yet to discover your medium of expression.

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