Dealing with Anxiety as an Artist

Anxiety is experiencing failure in advance. Tell yourself enough vivid stories about the worst possible outcome of your work and you’ll soon come to believe them. Worry is not preparation, and anxiety doesn’t make you better.

-Seth Godin

Anxiety is the elephant in my room. For the past year I’ve been filled to the brim with it. I can now count on two hands how many times anxiety has kept me from falling asleep, not just for an hour or two, but the whole night.

In college a group of us pulled an all-nighter before our first final. It was for Italian class and I can remember siting in the lobby after the test with heavy eyes and falling asleep right in the middle of conversations. Now you have to understand that I LOVE my sleep. It runs in the family and it must have something to do with my Swedish heritage (that could be a complete lie). After that all-nighter and seeing that it didn’t really help my grade, I vowed never to do it again.

Fast forward almost a decade now and I’m back to pulling all nighters, not by choice mind you. Well, they end up being by choice because you can only count sheep until they get tired of jumping the fence. The difference between the anxiety filled nights and my college red eyed experience is that I don’t get tired as the day continues. You would think that I would have been anxious about the final (sorry, Professoressa Vairo) but I wasn’t. Sure, there was probably such a huge release of pent up tension after the final that I couldn’t stop my lead filled eyelids. The anxiety that I deal with today is something that doesn’t seem to want to go away.

You can’t get rid of it

As an artist I’ve dealt with the fear and anxiety of the performance. I didn’t go through six years of school and forget how to deal with the pressure of the spotlight. That anxiety does not cripple my psyche. It’s actually the rest of the hours of the day that I’m now dealing with. I’ve told myself those vivid stories about not making enough money to support a family. My anxiety has a strangle hold on my dreams.

So, where is the silver-lining right? For me, my biggest demon is perfectionism. There are many projects in my life that I’ve left unfinished because I was so concerned with producing a perfect product that I couldn’t see it through. As I write this, I’m having second thoughts of publishing it. You would think that by now with as many auditions as I’ve had I would be ok with being judged and I would not experience artistic paralysis. Yet, it’s there and feels as palpable as the rhythm of my fingers against this keyboard.

Steven Pressfield calls it the War of Art and crafted a beautiful book about it under the same name. He describes this feeling as the Resistance. It’s the anxiety, fear, worry, and story that you listen to that keeps you from pursuing your dreams. His solution: Do the Work (another great book). At the end of the day, I’ve realized, that an artist is never immune to anxiety. When I’m in performance mode the butterflies in my stomach motivate me and feed into the energy that I need to create something out of nothing.

As a product of a music conservatory I performed weekly, if not daily sometimes. Thankfully I came to grips with my performance anxiety through repetition and not worrying about perfection. Moving forward I’m dealing with my artistic anxiety in the same way: through repetition. It comes in several forms: creating more art, finishing more art, and sharing it. I encourage you to do the same, we can trump our anxiety and use it to inspire and connect. Art comes in all shapes and sizes, go create something.

How do you deal with anxiety?

Photo: Rafael Marchesini