Is There A Link Between Creativity & Mental Illness?

It’s a popular idea; Highly creative people appear to court varying degrees of mental disorder. But is it well founded or is it…

Chris Cornell. One of many creative and non creative people who leave here under the shadow of psychological challenges

It’s a popular idea; Highly creative people appear to court varying degrees of mental disorder. But is it well founded or is it misinformation?

Hi I’m Larry, writer and artist. If you like this article please offer some love by hitting the 💚 on the left.

Hear voices in your head? I do — all the time.

My guess is, like everyone else on this planet, you also do. Of course I’ve not interviewed everyone on the planet but this is my long considered view.

I don’t hear multiple voices, I just hear one. It appears to be me, has my accent, language and so on.

It’s usually a passive thing and it engages in questions and answers with itself. But there’s no sound, just the thoughts.

There’s the speaker of the words, what seems like words, and then there’s me, the observer of the monologue or dialogue, or whatever it happens to be.

It’s almost like there’s some kind of duality — I and myself. If I get too involved I can be carried away, totally immersed in the idea that the mental discussion is me.

When I get caught up in thought it causes me problems, affects my work and my relationships.

The good thing here is that most of the time I’m aware of the insanity of it all, so no I don’t need a shrink, thanks.

The speed and intensity of thought usually comes about when I focus incessantly on something that bothers me. It can go on for days, but thankfully I always find a way out.

I know not everyone can find a way out so easily, so that’s why I’m sharing this with you.

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The Separation Of Thought From Self Identity

I was probably in my mid 20’s when I first began to experience heavy duty anxiety.

I was working for myself and I developed this idea that I needed to work every hour I could to make it. That’s amusing and absurd to me now.

At that time I had a mortgage, business costs and commitments to customers that I had to meet. Saying no was not an option, so things spiralled downwards.

I couldn’t relax. I’d lie awake at night worrying about work and money.

I went to see my local doctor but she really had nothing to offer me other than pills. So on I went working my ass off, stress and anxiety my ever present companions.

I left many things I loved behind for these commitments. Friends, family, pastimes I enjoyed, and so on. All for the sake of work.

There was this overwhelming need to meet commitments that I couldn’t ignore.

Desperate to find an answer I discovered meditation.

One night on holidays with my wife and kids, staying in a mobile home, I looked at myself in the mirror and I had an experience.

Suddenly I realised that who I was looking at was not me. There was a sudden separation of me from the physical thinking me.

This was a significant turning point.

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Creativity & Mental Illness, Is There A Link?

The romantic notion that mental illness and creativity are linked is so prominent in the public consciousness that it is rarely challenged. So before I continue, let me nip this in the bud: Mental illness is neither necessary nor sufficient for creativity.

– Scott Barry Kaufman, Author & Psychologist

The reason I let you in on my personal experience is because I believe anxiety is a widespread epidemic in our society.

Amongst this, there is the popular belief that creatives in particular are afflicted. We need to be mad, tortured, or otherwise possess mental instability of some kind in order to be an artist.

But do we really need to be mentally tortured to create something great?

Is there a requirement that we lead a desperate and painful existence to reach eminence?

Is there a fine line between insanity and genius?

The idea of the “mad genius” has been a favourite cultural belief for a very long time.

Perhaps one of the most famous artist considered a mad genius is Vincent Van Gogh. However many experts of his work, life and times now agree that Van Gogh was not actually insane.

Regardless, the cultural idea of the “mad genius” persists.

We read in the media about creative people like Chris Cornell, Chester Bennington, and Robin Williams who take their own lives and it serves to reinforce the belief.

This false belief has also been reinforced by what some regard as exaggerated scientific claims.

Research from psychiatrist Nancy Andreasen and others for example, have been cited over and over as evidence for the link between creativity and mental illness.

But is it accurate?

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Reader Bonus: Grab your FREE 24 Meditation Tips For Beginners — Learn how to overcome the voices in your head, eliminate anxiety, stress and depression with daily meditation practice.

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The Death Of The Mad Genius Myth

I believe in certain cases of creative genius there may be some parallel degree of mental illness, but I think it’s a mistake to believe they go hand in glove.

Correlations exist sure, but as we know correlation is not proof.

I expect many creatives and regular mortals alike, experience anxiety and depression to varying degrees throughout their lives. But to me it’s hardly a prerequisite for creativity.

Psychologist, writer and musician Judith Schlesinger may have gone a long way to finally putting to bed this ancient myth.

In her book Schlesinger says;

In the last 30 years, many psychologists, psychiatrists and academics of all stripes have insisted on bundling genius with bipolar disorder — a chorus that legitimises the public’s suspicions and every media variations on this fascinating theme. But there’s no compelling proof that creative people have more psychological problems that members of any other vocational group.

– Judith Schlesinger, Author & Psychologist

Schlesinger also points out in her book that a number of worldwide studies have found high rates of suicide in disparate professional groups such as construction workers and physicians.

So to highlight mental disorder as being predominant or some kind of prerequisite to creativity is not only misinformative, but professionally irresponsible.

Mental illness, if it is even accurate to call it an illness, exists to varying degrees in everyone.

Our challenge therefore, not only for so-called creatives but for the general population is to find a way to come to terms with the “voices in your head”.

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How To Calm The Voices In Your Head

At its worst, although I was never actually diagnosed (which may be a good thing), I felt lost, isolated and a complete failure.

I was never suicidal thankfully, however I was probably experiencing depression.

Certainly what I felt at that time was more than just anxiety. The tightness and disturbance of mind was worse than the familiar presence of everyday mental discomfort.

It was a tough time but fortunately I found a way out.

I was reading Seth: The Nature Of Personal Reality and other material, and what I found helped me understand my mind, perception and what exactly I was experiencing.

From the first time I meditated I began to understand myself and see things clearer.

I believe that not only creative people, but everybody who experiences mental discomfort and depression can find a way out of anxiety and depression through meditation.

And we don’t have to sacrifice our creativity in the process.

Neuroscience Confirms The Benefits Of Meditation

Studies of the brain before, during and after prolonged meditation practice continue to demonstrate its positive effects for mental health and cognitive function.

A 2016 study by Sara Lazar, PhD, of the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program, has shown how Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) helped improve negative mental-set suppression.

In other words, researchers found after the 8 week MBCT program, depressed individuals were better equipped to avoid getting caught in depression-related thoughts.

They also noted a reduction in depression related symptoms in those who took part in the study.

Another study by Mark Krasnow, MD, PhD, has identified nerve cells in the brain stem that connect breathing to relaxation, attention, excitement and anxiety.

The study showed that control of the breathing center has a direct and dramatic influence on higher-order brain function. In other words, slow breathing calms you down and puts you in a better place.

A Way Out Through Meditation

Excessive and prolonged negative mental activity can leave us worn out and exhausted. Eventually for many, it may lead to depressed mental states.

So we need an outlet and the good news is we get to choose.

That outlet can be a walk in the woods, a run, planting vegetables, painting or any other activity that allows us disconnect from thought.

For many of us though, these activities don’t offer us release, so something else is required.

That something can be meditation.

Meditation can be very difficult at first so it may be best to find a meditation group you can join.

Meditation overseen by skilled and practiced meditation experts can often help us make progress pretty quickly. Whereas alone we may give up too soon.

If you choose to go it alone then you may need a guided meditation audio — this is what I used and still do.

Meditation Resources To Help You Get Started.

For more on meditation you may be interested in taking an online introductory course or reading more on the topic. Here are some resources to assist you;

Hay House Meditation Course

Guided Meditation Audio

The Little Book of Mindfulness

The Miracle Of Mindfulness — Thich Nhat Hanh

24 Meditation Tips For Beginners

Reader Bonus: Grab your FREE 24 Meditation Tips For Beginners — Learn how to overcome the voices in your head, eliminate anxiety, stress and depression with daily meditation practice.

Get yours here.

Originally published at larrygmaguire.com on August 9, 2017.

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Howdy, I’m Larry, Writer & Artist. Thanks for taking the time to read my stuff. I write about art, creativity, business & marketing. When I’m not doing that I write short stories about the ordinary lives of people and the challenges they face. My stuff can be edgy, hard hitting, and sometimes controversial, but never contrived. If that’s your bag you can Sign-up To Sunday Letters Here.