Depression affects almost 7% of people in America and it’s extremely common in creative personalities. This comes as no surprise due to fact that people susceptible to depression are typically reflective in nature and there is a significant role that reflection plays in the creative process. In spite of these common threads, in early stages, depression can be difficult to spot. The overt feelings of despair that slink into the consciousness may occur gradually. The loss of sleep, motivation, and joy compounds over time until the full blown depression becomes an oppressive storm thundering overhead. While depression is a burden for anyone that suffers from it, it can have a unique effect on the creative process.
Some of the ways that depression can affect the creative process include insomnia, anhedonia and feelings of worthlessness. Identifying these symptoms early and recognizing how they affect the creative process is a key step in trying to stop depression from hindering your creative goals.
1. Difficulty sleeping:
Insomnia is a common symptom of depression and can create a vicious cycle that exacerbates depression. Getting good rest on a nightly basis is essential to mood regulation and without it, the brain is unable to function properly. A lack of sleep heightens the limbic regions of the brain, making emotion regulation difficult.
Insomnia may be disguising itself as a creative burst of energy that burns into the night. While it may feel like a second wind, without adequate sleep the brain becomes hypersensitive to stimuli and emotional regulation suffers. It’s possible that an all nighter could actually be very productive, resulting in very expressive creative works but the great results can keep you from recognizing a negative pattern (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?).
It may be difficult to recognize that a lack of sleep is causing a problem until the exhausted brain’s difficulty regulating emotions begins to affect relationships, mood and the ability to complete other tasks.
2. A diminished pleasure in almost all activities:
Anhedonia has settled in when one no longer derives pleasure from activities that used to be enjoyable. Anhedonia (meaning without pleasure) can make the creative process dull, uninspiring and even painful. Inspiration is a vital part of what makes the creative process work, and if you simply aren’t “feeling it,” it can make work feel like a grind. If the activity no longer brings any pleasure the desire to engage in the activity will lessen over time.
Anhedonia can rob you of the joy once so naturally derived from the creative process. The immense satisfaction once found in stumbling upon the perfect melody or discovering the right visual element in your design now just feels blunted. In David Foster Wallace’s book Infinite Jest, he describes anhedonia as “everything becoming an outline of the thing. Objects become schemata. The world becomes a map of the world. An anhedonic can navigate, but has no location.”
In it’s most extreme cases, anhedonia feels like an emotional flatlining where there is no emotional dynamic to speak of. The loss of feelings, good or bad, can be terribly disorienting. The creative person experiences a formerly colorful world drained of all pigment.
3. Feelings of worthlessness
Feelings of worthlessness can be the most challenging part of depression due to the distorted belief that any attempts at improving the situation would be futile. It moves in a cycle of helplessness that can be very difficult to interrupt.
The desire to create something of high quality (or worth) is central to the creative process. Without the sure-footed confidence that you are creating something of value in your work, it is almost impossible to find the motivation to do what every artist aims to do – make great art.
Knowing how insomnia, anhedonia and worthlessness can sabotage the creative process can be helpful in recognizing when you might be experiencing depression. Everyone struggles with these symptoms from time to time, however, if a pattern develops and these symptoms are making it difficult to engage in your daily life there may be a deeper issue.
If you are suffering from depression and recognize any of these symptoms in yourself click here for more resources. Click here to learn more about my counseling practice in Nashville that helps creative people in transition find hope.