- Christine Forest, M.D.
- Los Angeles, California
- I have initially created the Better Than Cured Guide to Healing and Happiness to help patients in my psychiatric private practice who were suffering from anxiety and depression. My goal was not only to help them get well, but beyond that, to also help them find a viable path to a happier life. They were loosing any hope that they can ever be healthy and happy again. They were amazed when they did it. If hundreds of my patients could do it, so can you, my dear reader. I hope their stories of courage and success will empower you to reinvent yourself and rekindle the hope that your life too can be better and that your pain can be healed. Set your life course on a "better than cured" path that leads to your own profound and personal journey to healing and happiness. For more information about my medical career and my private practice, please visit my web site at drforest.com.
Friday, November 6, 2009
IRRESISTIBLY, AN ARTIST or TALES OF EXTRAORDINARY CREATIVITY
Although there is an artist in each one of us, there are some of us for whom being creative is not a choice, but an irresistible calling. Being creative is part of their identity. Asking them to give it up is the same as asking them to stop breathing. They think, plan, create non stop, 24 hours a day. They are like a well tuned violin, resonating equally deep to the sighs of the world and to happenings in their day to day life. They vibrate at high emotional intensity all the time. And they don't have a choice. They are blessed with special talents, but also they need to know how to harness the emotional charge attached to that, in order to function well. This is what the modern researchers in creativity, like Dr. Nancy Andreasen from the University of Iowa, calls extraordinary creativity.
In a broader sense, people with extraordinary creativity are not just well known artists. They are also the people who have highly creative professions and careers. This category includes less known artists like museum curators who use skill and imagination to restore and maintain works of art, editors and publicists who devote their lives to nurturing books and the art of the written word, professors who teach subjects they are deeply immersed in and have the talent and the power to transport their students into a different world even if only for the duration of a one hour class, archaeologists who dig for fragments of history and reconstruct an entire civilization from the knowledge contained in a ceramic shard, computer programmers who envision revolutionary ways to use technology, business people who use their creativity to find ingenious business solutions--all these anonymous people have responded to the irresistible call of their creativity and embraced careers that satisfy this call.
Recent research in the neurobiology of creativity is beginning to show that even the brain of the exceptionally creative people is wired differently than that of people possessing only a day-to-day type of creativity. In highly creative people, the inspiration for a new idea arises suddenly, connecting in a non sequentially with many areas of the brain, accessing the unconscious mind in a free, uncensored way. The rapid fire of information, with seeds in both, conscious and unconscious mind, and the capacity of the creative people's brain to "go with it", is just one way the scientists believe the exceptionally creative brain works differently than an average one.
But for all the benefits of the exceptionally creativity, there is often a price to pay. These people tend to be much more sensitive to the world's impact on their lives, and therefore, much more vulnerable. They tend not to have the practical skills most people have. They are often so immersed in their creative process that often they forget to return the phone call that would get them the job, doing it for money. They are easily crushed if something goes wrong and they have a hard time tolerating criticisms of their work. In other words, it's not easy to be talented. Many creative people have notoriously suffered from emotional disorders, the classic example being Vincent Van Gogh and his struggle with bipolar disorder, but I believe it is very common for talented people to struggle with different degrees of anxiety, at the very least.
Zeke, one of my "exceptionally creative" patients, is a good example. He came in not long ago for his monthly follow up appointment.
"Even though I no longer have panic attacks," he began, "I realized recently that I am not like my friends. I am painfully aware of everything around me. I avoid saying things to people because I am mortally afraid I will disturb them. When we watched the NASA hit the moon with the projectile to raise a dust cloud and analyze it, I was the only one watching it with tears in my eyes. When I work and I am thirsty, I postpone for hours getting up and having a glass of water because I don't want to disturb the flow in my ideas. I realized I am constantly on the look to make sure I don't disturb something or someone or even my own thoughts. I rarely miss anything from what I see and I remember details that my friends swear they never see, or worse, they say that never existed. I wonder why am I so different? Why do I have to live with this fears and worries all the time?"
"Does this anxiety interfere with your work?" I asked, trying to understand the extent of this problem.
"No," he said quickly,"not at all. I am very productive. A magazine I used to work for, renewed my contract and I am working on a new project that is extremely exciting."
Zeke is a photojournalist. He travels the world and tells the stories as he sees them--a very interesting and exciting life you might say, but for his daily struggle with anxiety.
Listening to his litany of complaints, it struck me that the very complaints that were bothering him, were also helping him better at what he was doing. Yes, it was a nuisance to live under heightened pressure and worries. But that was making him more alert and more in tune to the world. It was unpleasant not to get up from his desk and allow himself a brake, but working at that intensity was helping him get "in the zone," in a creative flow that was helping him turn in remarkable journalistic work. In other words, it wasn't all bad. I have heard before these types of complains from my other creative patients.
"I will need to take more medication, I am afraid," he said as an afterthought.
For few months, he was taking Cymbalta 60 mg a day that helped him control the initial mixture of panic attacks and depression. But I was not sure if this low level anxiety he was talking about now, was really a matter of medication management.
"Have you ever considered," I said, " that this low level anxiety you have now has some benefits?"
His startled look indicated he hasn't. I continued with my theory.
"Although unpleasant at times, this low level anxiety helps you being better at your work. Imagine we would increase the medication and you would feel almost nothing, living in a bubble of indifference to the world. Would you like that?"
"I would loose my job, I wouldn't be myself, but other than that..." he said with a smile.
"Exactly. We need to balance the level of anxiety in such a way that it allows you to be the creative artist that you are, but without becoming so intense that dealing with anxiety becomes the focus of your life."
"What do you suggest, then? How can I reach that balance?"
"Understand that this anxiety is part of who you are. You need it, in order to be creative. It is your emotional edge that makes you resonate with the world deeply and creatively. As it isn't too intense, as you said, perhaps we can find ways for you to better cope with it, rather than make it go away with medication, which would numb you out in the end. For example, when you are afraid to do something that might disturb "the flow," use the rule of "just do it." Simply recognize what holds you back and act against it. Do not give into that fear. But if anxiety enhances your emotional reaction to certain events, news, books or other things you come in contact and move you deeply, allow yourself to feel that. Your emotional reaction then, may just be the trigger for a crative thought."
"I am not quite sure I understand this," said Zeke sounding puzzled. "Are you suggesting I can learn how to turn my anxiety off when it's bothering me and on to enhance my perception or to aide my work when I need it?"
"Yes, you could learn how to modulate it, work with it, rather than against it. Denying this anxiety and attempting to squash it doesn't work and it only makes you more frustrated."
After going into many details and examples, he agreed that he will try to approach his low level anxiety in this way.
Few weeks later he called me from Ruwanda, where he was working on an article about "the oil paradox." He said he had been "learning to make friends" with his anxiety and that made him happier and put his mind at ease. He felt more creative and productive than ever before and he was very excited.