Depression and creativity: What’s art(ist) got to do with it?

This is a guest post by Andrea Gerčar on understanding and effects of depression in artists. 

Andrea is a psychologist and licensed gestalt psychotherapist and has a private practice in Zagreb, Croatia..You can follow Andrea on her IG @gestalt_psihoterapija for more great short form insights.

Creative process is an emotional process; it can be chaotic, irrational, painful, exciting, fun, terrifying… No wonder we link art with guts and heart, and not so much with the brain. We tolerate, and even expect that an artist has mood swings, suffers from depression and acts irresponsible when it comes to day to day errands.

But is this really true? Is depression a key part, a precondition to being creative? Or is it the opposite of what we need when we are creating - blocked energy, being tired, insecure, helpless, disoriented?

Maybe we can find the answer to this question in the works of art themselves, especially those that emerged from collective consciousness. Fairy tales, for example, usually depict a main character struggling with confusion, loss and/or depressive state. These conditions then lead to specific problem solutions that the main character wouldn’t find otherwise.

In gestalt psychotherapy, we call this point „impasse“. It is a position in life when old ways are not of use to us anymore, but we still didn’t develop new ones. Sounds familiar? We go through these impasses, smaller or bigger, many times in our lives. One part is developmental; every time we move to the next stage in our life – from childhood to adolescence, from adolescence to being grown up (and when is that, by the way?) we must change our attitudes, the way we see the world and adapt our behaviour accordingly.

The same thing happens with creative processes. There is no development and creativity without leaving the old and building the new. Of course, all our previous experience and techniques we learnt is the basis for that same progress.

So, what is the connection between depression (the impasse) and creativity?

The thing is, the state of impasse doesn’t lead necessarily to us becoming better and moving forward. Sometimes, we will be stuck. The pressure to move forward came too early, we were not ready. We don’t have enough support and/or inner strength. Sometimes, the challenge sends us way, way back. We are in psychological and creative regression. It could be just a creative crisis, but it could also mean that we are going through a mental crisis.

So this is the point where depression doesn’t have anything to do with creativity; we need to find inner balance so we can make art again. Sometimes this journey is too challenging for us. We need support, guidance; usually in the form of psychotherapy.

Many people from creative industries are afraid that going through psychotherapy will „kill“ their creativity. They are holding onto their depression, although it didn’t give them any fruits for years.

So this precisely is the difference between creative depression that leads to growth (and possible success) and depression that is just an empty, anxious and depleting feeling.

Psychotherapy helps us to gather our inner demons and learn how to use them in our advantage and in the advantage of our art. Many times, we know how to do this by ourselves; many times, we don’t.

And romanticizing the states of depression will not bring us any good – it will only harm ourselves, our loved ones and eventually, stop the creative process. In the end, there is no creative process without human connection.

Now, what if you just realized that your feelings of being stuck and depressed don’t do anything good for your creative process so you want to do something about it, but you are either not ready for psychotherapy or you can’t afford it? You know you need it but it’s not an option right now. What can you do?

1. Read It’s not always depression by Hillary Jacobs Hendel

I know the title sounds funny in this context but the techniques described in it can actually help a lot with some forms of mild depression. It’s also good if you struggle with anxiety, guilt or shame.

2. Make sure you exercise regularly and eat as healthy as possible

This is important for all artists in general, as your body is your tool in so many ways, but especially if depression gets involved. It can be very challenging to do this when depressed but if you make sure you eat quality food and do some form of physical activity every day, your mind will give you back double in terms of creative flow and inspiration. I will use just one example from my experience; I have two jobs and I work with people almost every day from morning to evening. After a while, I felt I am operating just from my mind, feeling weak in my body as a consequence, totally drained and with no energy to handle other stuff. I sensed, although my body just wants to lay down after all that “mind-work”, I should do just the opposite: my body needs movement, I need to feel it, to connect with it. I started practicing yoga every morning and a bit of pilates in the evening (off course, everybody should choose a form of physical activity according to their preferences, there are no rules) and in a short while I gained much more energy, inspiration, but also inner peacefulness.

3. Make art every day

This can also be a challenge but do this even if it’s miniscule. Even if it’s just practising  one thing over and over again and it’s “not art” its “just doodles”, do it. Do anything. This will help you in many ways, but the most important is that your skill will not deteriorate. Once you are feeling better and you are able to create at the pace and scale you like, you will be able to get there much faster if you kept going instead of not picking up your brush or pencil in weeks or months.

Maya’s note:

I will be posting much more on this subject, especially my experience with psychotherapy. I am a big proponent of it and I find it almost essential for artists. There is a lot I have to say on this subject but for now I hope this was helpful and if you are struggling with any kind of mental health issues, not just depression, please ask for professional help. It will make everything better much much quicker. 

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