The Alchemy of Anxiety: 4 Techniques For Transforming Nervous Energy Into Creative Gold
Ever caught yourself staring off into space fretting about whether or not you’ll be able to finish a project by it’s ever-looming deadline? Or thinking about an upcoming presentation in front of all your co-workers? The impending sense of doom that begins to dawn with these simple imaginings can bring on strong nervous energy, setting one to sweating.
Why? Because you care, and you have a very powerful mind. Chances are you’re a creatively-driven individual who, like all of us, can’t stand this nervous energy when it comes on, and would love to know how to handle it better.
Well, you’re out of luck. Unless you’re going to spend the rest of your life literally living in a hole somewhere, these awful emotions and anxious energy simply can’t be avoided. You can procrastinate all you want, or clean your apartment until the floors are fit for meals, but these types of classic avoidance/denial tactics aren’t going to help you escape the fate of your discomfort. You have to face it, and the best way to do that, is to educate yourself about it beforehand.
First, however, we need to know if you’re truly an anxious individual. From the DSM-5, the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” used by the American Psychiatric Association (don’t let the term ‘mental illness’ arouse your stigma here — it’s estimated that 1 in 2 U.S. citizens will have, or have experienced, a mental illness by the age of 40) these are…
The Most Common Physical Symptoms of Anxiety
- Muscle tension
- Gastrointestinal discomfort or diarrhea
- Sleep difficulties
Ok, so you’re a stress-bag. Most of us are. We’re not going to go into ‘root causes’ here, because they’re completely subjective to the individual and are best dealt with by a professional. We are, however, going to go over some clear-cut techniques that have been proven to work…
How To Channel Nervous Energy Creatively
If there’s one thing we know about anxiousness and nervous energy, it’s that it’s a very strong force! When it comes on, there seems to be an endless supply of it, and it’s so abundant that it can often leave our entire body physically shaking. But imagine what you could do by putting that excess of energy to work for you, instead of against you? Well, now you can. Here are 4 steps:
1) Do NOT resist it.
Resisting nervous energy is one of the worst things you can do, as it will only make things worse. Yet it’s one of the most common reactions. Many people don’t even realize they’re doing it in the beginning, when the symptoms are small (unconscious denial), which ultimately exacerbates them until it results in a full-blown panic attack. And resisting that (which is nearly impossible without medication) results in, oh, lovely things such a full-body tremors and vomiting.
So you have to train yourself in the art of non-resistance. Just as professional downhill skiers, after they’ve fallen, are trained to go completely limp (in order to break as few bones as possible and likely even save their lives), so too must you do the exact opposite of your natural instincts.
And what are your natural instincts? To freak out, of course. To tense up, begin breathing shallowly and drive the train of your thoughts right off the track into full-blown ‘fight or flight’ mode.
Yet this tipping point is also a golden moment. Here is your window to notice the nervous energy as it starts to come on. If you can do this, and give yourself a little space around it, you paradoxically begin to have a little more control because you understand what’s happening: “Oh, ok, here it comes, but I’m not in any physical danger, I’m just here, doing (whatever it is you’re doing) and now there’s a feeling of anxiousness coming up…”
From there, you can:
2) Engage in Rhythmic Breathing.
Notice I didn’t say DEEP breathing? While breathing both deeply and rhythmically will work best, it’s only the latter that is required to have a substantially transformative effect on your nervous tension. When you have a strong physical reaction in your body, it not only makes sense that the antidote would be another, consciously controlled physical reaction, it’s proven.
Yes, your mental/emotional state (whether triggered by your environment or not) causes your anxious reaction and the upsurge of nervous energy, but below that we come full circle to your physiology. As soon as you notice the slightest anxiousness in you, BEGIN TO BREATHE …R H Y T H M I C A L L Y… and keep it going.
Got that? Good, because it works. Master this one technique and you will master your anxiousness, 99% guaranteed. However, here are a couple more suggestions:
3) Take a walk.
This only applies if you don’t suffer from agoraphobia, of course. Yes, VR is wonderful, but the actual world around us is the most inspiring reality we have, and it doesn’t cost a penny to experience it. Take yourself on a nice long walk, observe the people around you, smell the air and listen to the sounds, both far and near.
This simple practice is actually an ancient zen technique used to get you out of your mind and more fully into the present moment by attuning your senses to the external world. If you have a forest or hiking trail nearby, all the better. Even if you’re too busy to only make it once a week or so, the effects are real, and the serenity of simply walking for the sake of walking will slowly sink in, and you will find yourself calmer and more able to handle nervous energy when it comes up.
4) Get Over Yourself.
Or, at least get over your thoughts. You’re not as important as you think you are! Your thoughts, just like anything else in this life, should be scrutinized. If they’re not helping, but hindering you, drop them. And if you can’t NOT drop them, then deal with them — do something about them in the most constructive way you can.
Most of us worry far too much about what others think of us. Although we may be the main players everyday in our own game, what we tend to forget is: so is everyone else! They’re nowhere near as focussed on you as you may think they are. They’ve got all kinds of problems of their own that they’re far more worried about, believe me.
Realizing this is very freeing. It allows you to relax and focus more on ‘product’ than ‘delivery’, inevitably improving your delivery in the process.
The Takeaway: From Nervous Energy Into Creative Gold…
We are never going to live without obstacles and obstacles are stressful, but by practicing these techniques we can provide ourselves much higher chances for a creative, fun life in the long run.
The key here is to actually try these techniques out (particularly 1 & 2) the next time it happens, and even if they don’t work, not to give up! Really, it doesn’t get much easier than simply using the on-rushing anxiety of nervous energy as alarm bells to let it be and begin breathing rhythmically, and do only that. If you can manage to do so, even just a few times in a row, it will begin to become a habit, and you’ll be on your way.
Then, once you’ve gotten the basics down, you can start throwing in some ‘this isn’t the end of the world‘ and ‘I’m not the center of the universe‘ thoughts, and taking a break or a walk to cool off if you’re able, adding whatever else works for you personally over time.
This is the art of managing stress. In the end, it’s up to you if you want to learn — and eventually master — it or not, but the quality of your future life and health hangs in the balance (don’t let that stress you out ;).
As long as we’re alive, nervous energy is going to be a part of life. It’s a powerful force that can either sap us, causing everything from ulcers to premature aging; cause us to avoid it at all costs, meaning our life circumstances will never really get better; or we can learn to let it be and work with it over time.
Step by step, it can be done. The more manageable our stress becomes, the more confidence we gain, and the easier it gets to perpetuate this positive cycle of turning our nervous energy into productive, creative energy.