Using the creative process to ease anticipatory anxiety and calm the nervous system
– By Tanya North-Shymko –
We’ve all felt it… The anticipatory excitement of good things to come. The electric feeling that courses through us when we are filled with positivity and hope. The motivation to dream big and set high expectations as our dopamine and adrenalin levels increase with our excitement. We have been craving these feelings for the past two years as the entire human race has been waiting for the global pandemic to run its course so that we can return to “normal”. Now that we are finally getting a reprieve from living with restrictions, why are we not feeling this elation?
Anticipatory anxiety is the feeling we get when we expect something bad to happen. Just like a muscle builds memory with exercise, the autonomic nervous system (ANS) builds memory with experiences, and it is the ANS that is responsible for helping us to either feel calm or anxious. When a person becomes used to unfavourable experiences happening repeatedly (much like the past couple of years), they can develop a belief that a pattern of bad things will continue to happen in the foreseeable future. Even when life levels out and things are going well, a sense of dread, worry, and procrastination can be felt because of this anxiety. I call it the “eye of the hurricane syndrome” because when life seems the calmest, we can feel the most anxious worrying for the worst to come. We can’t fully immerse ourselves into all that life has to offer when we are expecting the worst all the time.
How can we overcome anticipatory anxiety so that we can become excited about life again?
One thing I recommend to my clients is to do something they enjoy that is also creative. When we create, we have control, and when we are in control, we calm our ANS and ease anxiety. Traditional arts, such as painting, sketching, music, and dancing, are great outlets for creativity. But you don’t need to be an artist to create. As the weather gets nicer, getting outside and enjoying the sunshine while gardening or building a sandcastle will have the same effect. Following a YouTube video while you fix your faucet or gathering with a bunch of friends to follow the steps in a painting video are also great ideas. Classes and groups are opening again, and it is a great way to get out and rediscover what you enjoy. What makes you excited? What gives you a buzz of electricity in your blood when you are doing it? Whatever it is, do more of it, and do it often!
Another thing I work on with my clients is releasing the need for perfection. First, there is no such thing as ‘perfect’, so striving for it is an impossible feat. Second, it is good to know that anxiety also plays a role in perfectionism. A person who identifies as a perfectionist might find themself either stressing over every detail or frozen from even beginning the project. What really is going on within their brain is a means to ease anxiety by trying to find control over the situation. However, when ‘perfect’ is unachievable, easing the anxiety can be impossible. A healthier exercise that I recommend is ‘messy movement.’ There are many ways to do this, and summer is the perfect time to do it. I take clients outside where they are encouraged to spray, splatter, fling, and stomp paint all over large canvasses. You can do this with old sheets or curtains at home. You can also fling mud at the fence after the rain, or even get the family involved in a water fight on a hot, sunny day. The messiness of these activities overrides the need to be perfect. Big body movements like running, throwing, and jumping get your blood flowing. Also, using all your senses and feeling a variety of temperature changes are great ways to calm your ANS. And let’s face it, smiling, laughing, and having fun will make everyone feel like a care-free kid again!
We cannot control what is going on in the world around us, but we do have control over how we respond to it. It is okay. Start small and allow yourself to experience joy and elation. The more you do, the more those actions increase your ANS memory so that it can start anticipating good things to come and make the bad times easier to handle.
Tanya North-Shymko is a certified health, life, grief, and master transformational coach. She works with clients who struggle with anxiety and chronic stress.