Anxiety and creativity as a refuge

Last week I was off work with stress and anxiety. I’m back in now, but it was a bit of a shock to crash out with a panic attack on a not particularly difficult Monday morning, and find myself unable to return for a few days after that. While I’ve struggled anxiety for quite a long, I don’t normally find myself needing to take time off work with it, but that’s how things go sometimes, isn’t it?

During my time off I was feeling really tired and had that kind of brain fog that makes it a bit difficult to think things through properly. From a creative point of view, I wasn’t been able to write much either, which is my normal creative weapon of choice. When my mental health slips this way my instinct is to retreat into making pictures. I find something therapeutic in the physical activity involved in drawing, cutting paper and working out which other materials may work for that particular design.

There are a few theories about around why creative activities are helpful to mental health, including (not an exhaustive list);
1. That it provides a nice distraction from difficult feelings or circumstances
2. That it may provide a route into a state of ‘Flow’. This is a psychological term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and which describes a positive state of mind where a person is fully involved in and focused on a particular activity (for more information you can read his book on the subject here (affiliate link)).
3. A route for self expression or catharsis, allowing people to express, and more clearly understand their own feelings or thoughts on a difficult situation.

Over time I have probably found all three of these aspects of creativity helpful to my own mental health, and am grateful that it is something I feel able to do. One of the benefits of building some form of creative practice into my everyday life is that when things feel a bit difficult, I have something productive to withdraw into, like this last week.

And I made a picture of a cat that I’m pleased with too.

Thank you you for reading. I also write, make art and films. If you like these prompts and want to get a copy of a free short book of them I wrote, and to hear more about my writing projects please join my mailing list here. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon Page here.

Putting things down, picking things up, starting again


Over the last few weeks I’ve been making a slow return to working on two projects that I started last year. At the beginning of last year I took a course in documentary film making and I took two courses in play writing. I’ve been interested in the process of documentary filmmaking for quite a while. A lot of my formal training has been in research methods and in the social sciences, and have some frustrations with the way that academic work gets communicated (or doesn’t) to the wider world. At the time this seemed like a good thing to understand a bit better, and a good fit with my existing skill set. I took the play writing course because I was stuck with a novel I was working with and thought it would be helpful to look at it from a different approach. But then I got hooked and decided I had to write a play, obviously. And I did, sort of.

But there were problems. The film school that I enrolled with decided to change the dates of their course without really giving me much notice and I ended up trying to do both things at the same time, and have a full time job too. It worked for a while, but then I went through some crappy nonsense in my private life, and started a new job, and it didn’t really work anymore. Up until the beginning of September I’d not really worked on either project for 12 months and was not feeling great about that as I really wanted to finish something well enough to send it ‘somewhere’. I also have a film maker in my family, my dad, who kept gently reminding me that I should, ‘Work on my film’. And he’s right, I should be working on my film, because I got lucky with a really good story and could do something really interesting with it.

It took me a bit of time to work out what the blocks were on continuing with both projects, but I think I have a list now.

  1. Space – I was living with a friend of mine at the time and didn’t really have a huge amount of space. I’m kind of messy, and didn’t want to leave my mess all over his flat, so I ended up with a kind of squashed psychological space to work in.
  2. Teaching style – on the doc film course at least I felt a little as though I didn’t gel with the tutor. I think she’s great film maker, and loved talking to her about films. But she’s very much from the observational documentary style school. I wanted to work with other artistic things, like animation and set up pieces of film. I think I felt at the time that I wasn’t really able to make ‘my’ film so I did’t make a film at all.
  3. Time and Timing – the timing was bad, I was sad and exhausted. I was still getting used to living in London having moved from Cardiff, which is a much smaller, calmer city and one that I knew very well. I did’t have time to feed my creative self and that meant I couldn’t really put the work in that was needed.
  4. The fraud police – would anything I produced actually be as good as I thought they could be?

Above are some images I finished off yesterday that will part of an animation for the documentary. I’ve been writing new scenes for the play. So what’s happened? What has changed? I can think of two things that have really worked in ‘unblocking’. The first is that I cut out a load of things that I was doing, including socialising with some people that kind of drained me a bit, and carved out that time for doing creative stuff. Small, achievable projects first, at which step by step led me back to the ‘big’ ones. I’ve also come to realise that part of my creative process involves giving projects long ‘down’ periods as this enables me to come back to them with a new perspective. So not working on either project for a year doesn’t feel un-natural with hindsight.

Second, and I think this is the big one. I moved in with the boyfriend. We got a place together that gives me more space, and that helps. But I think the real key here is him. He’s constantly and consistently supportive, and frequently cooks the dinner so I can get on with something else. He’s such a tidy organised person, and yet he tolerates my creative mess everywhere, and he does it all with humour. He’s always happy to listen to my ideas, and talk to me about that, while never once said ‘you should do this’. I think that’s enabled me to regain some creative confidence. I had been told in the past that picking the right partner was really important, and I had been a bit dismissive of that, because at the time I was single and thought I could do it all myself. Turns out that advice was pretty good advice, after all.

You are here by Jenny Lawson

So being ill can have an up side sometimes. I’ve been unwell with some awful head cold [wo]man flu and haven’t been able to do much work. I’ve been mostly sleeping, drinking honey and lemon, and watching telly, with a little web surfing on the side. The web surfing turned out to be a little too exciting for my ill brain and I’ve had to wait a few days before I was able to form a coherent thought about this.

I came across Jenny Lawson’s memoir Furiously Happy, at least a year ago through one of those Amazon ‘and you may also like’ recommendations.  I loved it, having been bought up in the country with my own bunch of eccentrics, and from there I went on to read Let’s pretend this never happened, which I also loved. These books are very funny, and great books for anyone who has ever wanted to hide under a table at a public event (or regularly finds themselves taking a ‘time out’ in the office loo). Earlier in the week I wasn’t very well and couldn’t do much more than sit in bed and surf the internet. I spent some of that time diving into the Bloggess website and it was the first time I was able to have a really good read about her colouring book You are Here.

I really think this post is worth looking at for anyone who uses arty creative things as part of their efforts to manage mental health. Jenny Lawson writes vividly about her own arts practice (I have no idea if she would call it that, but her drawings are works of art) continually using drawing and doodling as a way of channeling negative or distressing thoughts or emotions. She is releasing a colouring book based on these drawings, alongside some short stories that work with the drawings, and what a beautiful thing it is (at least it looks that way from the pictures – the physical book won’t be available for a few months). Just go and look at the sweeping curves and swirling lines of some of these drawings. I really love how these drawings are intricate, and delicate, effective in evoking fairytale and myth. Somehow exciting and soothing to look at at the same time. I’ve ordered my copy, and I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying getting creative with this set of drawings. Or just owning them. Anyway, go and look. Now.

Cool artsy stuff with Jade Herriman


A few weeks ago I came across the blog of Jade Herriman. It looked like she was doing something interesting but it wasn’t until this morning that I had time to take a bit of a dive into her blog to see what was going on.

I really like her site. Jade is based in Australia and has set up an arts and mental health based business. The talented lady is also an arts therapist and a life coach. I particularly like a series of blog posts she has written about the effort and struggles it takes to set up a successful business, for example this one here.

Last week I wrote a bit about how, among other things, I’m not very comfortable with the current trend of calling colouring books or origami books therapy. They may feel therapeutic, but they aren’t what you would get from a skilled therapist. Turns out Jade has some similar thoughts, and can speak to this from the point of view of a professional.

Anyway, I really like what she’s trying to do, so go check her out.

Creativity and Catharsis


I’ve been blogging over the last few weeks about how an arts practice can be a positive thing for wellbeing and mental health. In my last post I was musing on how in the process of making things we transform one set of things (paper and paint, thoughts and feelings) into something else, something beautiful.

I’m interested in the idea that as part of the process of making something, it is possible to use thoughts, feeling, ideas or experiences as a raw material for craft. The concept of artistic expression as a cathartic process is not new. The idea is that the artist may not only use their practice as a medium through which to express feelings, but in the process may somehow expel or ‘purge’ negative emotions from their systems and in doing so would be relieved from them. For many people some negative emotions hold such power that it may be difficult to actually articulate them. A sweep of dark paint across a canvas, or beating of drums or moving the body through dance, may be the way in which a person may actually be able to give some form to those emotions. Once the paint is on the canvas a person may be able to ‘see’ what they are feeling externalised, and feel the emotion is no longer contained within them, but has been ‘set free’. I understand this reading of catharsis as a little like mental vomiting, expelling what is noxious to be rid of it.

A few years ago I was very interested in how story and narrative may have an impact on us humans, and I read the work of (and had the privilege of meeting with) Prof. Keith Oatley, who was very interested in the idea of fictional literature as a kind of emotional simulation. He had a slightly different reading of catharsis that drew on a different translation of the Greek roots. He described how catharsis could be interpreted not as a purging, but as a process of ‘clearing away’ or making sense of emotional turmoil. The experience of being in mental distress can be highly confusing. Some have suggested that through the process of creating art out of an emotional situation, it can be possible to make sense of it. The act of externalising emotion through that sweep of paint on the canvas may not really be effective in removing the emotion from the inside, but what it may be able to do is help make sense of it so that it is ever so slightly easier to live with.