Under Pressure: On the relationship between creativity and emotional/mental health

Sometimes I feel like my friends can’t quite take me seriously when I tell them how much art school is stressing me. When I hear myself describe to them what we do in our courses (like dressing up and dancing around cardboard sculptures of alien Christmas trees), I sometimes find it difficult to take myself seriously. However, as most people that work in a creative field would probably tell you, it really is stressful. Being creative is intense. Apart from the financial uncertainty and competitiveness that tend to run in these professions, the work itself is very demanding, mentally and emotionally. It is very easy to become personally invested in a project, some might even call this is a necessity. Because they are so closely intertwined, it is often difficult to separate between the professional and the personal. How does this affect the way we deal with issues of mental and emotional wellbeing in this context?

In Product Design, we are constantly brought to question our surroundings, our decisions, and most importantly, ourselves. There has been a crisis point in almost any project where this turned into seriously doubting myself and hating all the work I had done. Sometimes, it led to absolute public meltdowns. To me it is a strange and uncomfortable feeling to share such intimate moments with people I work with.

Many of my friends that study creative subjects have told me about similar experiences in their lives, particularly about struggles with insecurity and stress of varying degrees. Are these emotional strains simply an occupational hazard that we as creatives have to accept? Are they something we should embrace, something we actually need to produce meaningful work? There seems to be a romanticized idea of the tragically ailed, mad genius, based on the stories of countless artists like van Gogh or Beethoven that produced some of their best work during periods of Depression or Hypomania. Joshua Walters proposes in his Ted Talk ‘On being just crazy enough’, that those suffering from mental conditions might just be more sensitive to the world than others and that we can use our ‘skillness’ to our advantage. Many scientific studies suggest in fact, that there is a link between creativity and mental illness. One theory is that those with strong creative inclination perceive the world with a heightened awareness and tend to be more reflective and ruminate in their thoughts.

For me, a host of questions and problematics arise out of this. How do these factors influence people in creative fields in reaching out when in distress? At what point does these different pressures stop aiding creativity and start impeding it? What are your thoughts?

Need to think

Hi Pauline,

This definitely resonates with me. I realy want to share my thoughts on this with you, but i need some time to think about how best to structure them.

I thought i’d say thank you for sharing first and then respond in a day or 2.

Alex

Hi Alex,

thank you for saying thank you! :slight_smile: take all the time you need

Studies showing link between creativity and emotional precarity

@Pauline @Alex_Levene let me know if you came across scientific studies establishing that link? I couldnt find any…

links between creativity and emotional precarity

Hi @Noemi, @Pauline, @Alex_Levene,

I found this article interesting:

https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/the-real-link-between-creativity-and-mental-illness/

Alan.

Schizotypy!

Very grateful for the material, @alan ! This is a very interesting missing, because the way @Pauline framed this is by talking about mental/emotional health in a broad sense. As usual, contradictory findings are involved in such a complex topic. But schizotypy is stronger correlated with creativity than a full-on mental condition, being a generalized trait in the population, and difft from schizophrenia:

more creative people include more events/stimuli in their mental processes than less creative people. But crucially, they found that those scoring high in schizotypy showed a similar pattern of brain activations during creative thinking as the highly creative participants, supporting the idea that overlapping mental processes are implicated in both creativity and psychosis proneness.

“I hate my work” syndrome

On a lighter note… :slight_smile:

https://www.youtube.com/embed/xm7awfl6hYA

Still thinking

It’s been quite difficult to work out exactly what my thoughts are on this subject. I’ve found some of the comments below to be helpful and insightful, but some to be problematic.

There is certainly a strong link through poetry and literature to this idea. I’ve recently been reading a lot of Thomas Mann and it’s almost the entire structure on which his work is predicated. There seems to have been a sensibility that was propagrated in the late 1800s -early 1900s European intellectual/artisan culture around ‘bohemianism’ or latterly ‘bourgouise’. I think in some senses it emerges out of a combination of Romanticism (in poetry and visual art) and it’s opposite reaction, Realism (in painting and literature) and the beginnings of the sentimental nostalagia-tinged classical music of people like Verdi and the German/Austrians like Liszt, Mendelsohn.

The ‘struggling artist’ becomes a trope, a series of hooks onto which musicians, writers and painters can hang their emotional responses to the world. The struggles of the artist can therefore be equated to the struggles of the working, pastoral man and woman, who often during this period are the themes on which the artist work. c.f Beethoven’s 6th, Robert Burn’s Poetry, Victor Hugo. Which becomes an important connection between the (usually rich, educated and entitled) artists and the philosophy of people like Rosseau and Locke who want to improve the human condition for all.

More of a History of Art and Ideas response to the idea, and certainly not my final views on the subject, but i thought i’d add a bit more to this already in-depth post.

Also, worth having a quick read of this piece i found today: http://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/literary-madness/

link between sensivity and creativity

Pauline, your post made me think of my brother. At school he was artistic and a left hander, naturally talented at sport, and very sensitive (for example, he once walked into a house and sensed a ghost, which the owners later confirmed; another time, he avoided a major accident because he sensed something and changed his route on his motorbike). Life has been a bit of a struggle for him - he has pursued conventional success and it didn’t suit his temperament and he complains about life being constant suffering (although sometimes it as if he seems to enjoy the suffering, otherwise why would he keep doing it?). He also drinks alcohol a lot - I have always asssumed this is because he finds life challenging, because he is so sensitive.  Having said this, he is still creative and charming and loveable. But he is hard to be with sometimes.

I think modern life makes it very hard for such people and you need to try to find ways to live on the edge, and places to escape.

Hi Patrick,

nice to meet you and thank you so much for sharing your brothers story! “I think modern life makes it very hard for such people and you need to try to find ways to live on the edge, and places to escape.” Do you know of any good projects like that? Something like the Unmonastery perhaps, or are you thinking of something different?

I can’t offer much, but maybe Finbar can

Someone like me who is not a creative or art professional could simply read the emotional stress as common angst. Stress is so widespread nowadays most of us are struggling in a way, so… really don’t know.

Have you looked into art therapy or therapeutic gardening? Also, my newest friend @Finbar247 in Ireland who is both an accomplished artist and “an old soul” (we like to joke :)) might be able to offer more advice. Hang in there.

Hi Noemi,

you make an important point, and it’s something that we’ve been struggling a little bit with in our project. Everyone will most probably face some form of emotional stress at one point in their lives. These reflections were related to us trying to narrow down our target group and the issue we want to focus on. As we found a particular lot of these issues popping up in our immediate surrounding during our interviews, we were thinking to focus on young creatives. However, we are not quite sure if this even makes sense and Edgeryders is the right context to explore this or if we should approach the topic of mental health in a different way. Lots to figure out! Of course, all input is very much appreciated!

Connection between creativity and mental illness

Hi @Noemi @Pauline, is this challenge ongoing?

Challenge on mental wellbeing

@Maria yes! The challenge itself is around mental wellbeing, and people (like Pauline above) write about connections they find interesting or helpful projects.

Cultural approaches

My own experience with artistical education and the myth of sensitivity and creativity being linked to madness, depression, angst, is a sad one. I have found some solace and the begging of an understandment of the issue in the cultural differences between Europe, USA and Japan in this respect. The role of the artist and the way art is socialized varies greatly when you compare these traditions and to our shame Europe exhibits a very self-destructive narrative to live by. Maybe that could be a meaningful starting point to unravel the question, I hope it helps.

What’s your story?

Hi @Altamirula, nice to meet you. Can you expand on this point about cultural differences?

Have you worked in Japan or experiencedvarious situations directly, or is is something you’ve read about?

Interestingly, I wasnt paying too much attention to the question Pauline first addressed in this post, and yet seeing confirmations from such personal points above makes me wonder indeed if there is something more to explore here. If you have ideas on how we can frame this question of different emotional responses even more specific to the art world, we can launch a challenge so that we can bring more domain insights. Let me know, I’d be interested.

Sensitivity and emotional processing

Fascinating thread.

One question that strikes me is: shouldn’t this be precisely what art school is about? Providing the freedom to engage deeply with such practices, to experience the emotional fallout of an intense creative life before a job or a commercial project is hanging in the balance?

Certainly, this is something you will see at certain drama schools, who combine aspects of psychotherapy with learning to be a good performer - treating the education period as a time to process all the emotional material that surfaces from engaging in the creative practice.

Perhaps just being given permission to experience these things and making space to check in with each other and have collective discussion about what is coming up would go a long way to avoiding people feeling that processing emergent emotional material is somehow wrong or unbalanced.

This all also reminds me of how important it has been in recent years that people with ‘non-ordinary’ mental constitutions have been able to find each other and build a sense of solidarity, from which they can begin to try to educate the ‘normals’ about their own unique experiences:

Whether that be artists, introverts [and see also my piece here], Highly Sensitive People, Mad Pride or autistic people lobbying to be accepted as a neurological minority.

Echoes

@steelweaver , I just wanted to say that your piece on introverts is highly reminescent of @trythis 's own thinking around the same matter.

Me, I am not so sure that things get done in meetings, nor that real world meetings are more likely to lead to real world actions. But your point stands: collaboration environments that are friendly to introverts are a good thing.

face to face

“I am not so sure that things get done in meetings”

Ha. You may have a point there! :slight_smile:

I would say, though, that in my experience face-to-face meetings certainly produce different kinds of outcomes than just connecting online - there is a certain kind of trust, enthusiasm, or motivation to collaborate on projects that can suddenly emerge when a group who has only been connecting through screens suddenly share the same real-world space.

fully agree with that sentiment. face-to-face produces something tangibly different but equally as powerful as shared ‘head space’ online