How to Turn Anxiety Into Art

We’ve been conditioned to believe that being sensitive and emotional are personality flaws- that being vulnerable is weak, and that those who are unfeeling are strong.

This is a myth.

Even something like anxiety can be an incredible tool if you channel it correctly, redirecting the mechanisms that cause it. I struggle with depression and anxiety, but I’ve found ways to use characteristics of these disorders to make myself a better songwriter. 

Anxiety as a Creative Tool

Anxiety can feel like white noise roaring over your consciousness, making it hard to discern where the thoughts and emotions of others end, and where yours begin. It can make your heart pound, your palms sweat, and your mind feel foggy and disconnected from your body. I know most of my anxiety stems from my mind creating elaborate stories of what others might be thinking/feeling from nuanced reactions that likely mean nothing at all. 

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The first thing you must understand for your own sanity, and in order to be objective enough to create great art, is that YOUR THOUGHTS ARE NOT INHERENTLY TRUE. In line at the coffee shop, my brain will paint an entire scenario where the person behind me is judging how long it is taking me to pay, the barista is tense and frustrated at the cashier who is overwhelmed with my complicated order, and my friend waiting in the car is fuming- slowly beginning to despise me, wondering why I’m taking so long. This is actually a very interesting story my brain has created. In reality, it’s probably not as interesting (or dramatic). If I understand that’s all it is, a very interesting story my mind has come up with, I can use the mechanisms of my anxiety to my advantage. 

There might be some truth in my observations, but most likely they are way less severe than my anxiety is telling me they are, and even more likely, these feelings I’m picking up on probably have nothing to do with me, and more to do with the private personal battles each individual is fighting. 

The ability to interpret what multiple people are thinking/feeling in a given situation is a valuable songwriting tool. People with anxiety are actually very good at this, but it’s like the sensitivity knob of this useful tool is cranked up too high. Being aware of not only your own perspectives and emotions, but to also anticipate the expectations, fears, desires, and even criticisms of others can be an excellent creative resource. Once you are able to look at your observations objectively, and realize that you are not responsible for managing the emotions of others, what you observe will feel less overwhelming and more of an interesting creative topic that can provide an endless sources of inspiration. Next time you feel anxious, try not to label it as a “bad” feeling. Instead try and look at it as an entity separate from yourself, breathe, and observe what insights it can provide about your surroundings. 

It was only when I began writing that I was able to separate myself from my anxiety that had otherwise seemed like an intrinsic, overwhelming part of me. Finding a creative outlet is a fulfilling way to get in touch with your own emotions, and turn negative or difficult experiences into art. It can help you to explore your inner most thoughts, fears and desires in a safe, constructive way. Here’s some tips to successfully explore your own creative outlet! I’m going to speak specifically to songwriting, but you can apply these ideas to any medium you choose. 


Don’t be afraid to suck.

The end result is irrelevant. The process of self exploration is the only goal. Did you think about how you felt? Did you attempt to gain insight on your own perspective? Then you are doing it right. The simple act of turning something intangible, like an emotion or experience into something you can hear/taste/touch is phenomena of it’s own. 

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Spend time alone.

Obviously it is personal preference, but I find it crucial to spend time writing on my own, collecting my own thoughts, and sorting through my own emotions without distractions. I also love to collaborate with other writers and artists, but this alone time helps me to deeply understand the messages and concepts I want to relay in a session. Taking time to sit with your own thoughts and feelings with the goal of turning them into art allows you to step back, and view your experiences from an objective point of view, and cement your take on them. It puts space between you and your feelings and allows you to take ownership of your stories, vs being overwhelmed by your emotions/a victim to your circumstances. 

Where do I start?

Reflection and introspection are key to creating beautiful works of art. Be present with your own feelings, and try your best to communicate them in an honest way. What are you feeling right now? What enrages you? Elates you? Terrifies you? Moves you? Excites you? Saddens you? What does it look like? Taste like? Feel like? Where does this happen? Is it in a room? What’s on the walls? Is it in a desert? A forest? What’s on the ground? What does the air feel like? What does the sky look like? Who else is there? How do they feel? What do they say? What do you say? What did it feel like to be a kid? Coming of age? A teenager? What was your first love like? Your first heartbreak? The first time you had sex? The best sex you had? Your last love/heartbreak?

Details!

Don’t be afraid to get personal, or be specific. Paint a picture- and remember it doesn’t have to be literal. Love can be a color or a storm or an animal or a window. Despair can be a well, or a planet or a man in a white coat. Yes, universal truths make for terrific works of art, but don’t confuse this with watering down real human experience into nothingness. Chasing some version of what someone else might like will leave you feeling empty and your audience feeling uninspired. What/who do you LOVE? What makes you almost cry when you say it? What makes you smile when you say it? What are you scared to say? What is interesting to you? What breaks you? If it has this effect on you, it will most likely have this effect on others. I know my audience can tell when something is authentic vs something that is crafted as a one-size-fits-all lyric. 

Spit it out! Stop thinking.

When all else fails, get on your favorite instrument (or grab help from a friend!) and just sing some words. Doodle on a page. Throw paint at a canvas. You might stumble across something that was hiding below the surface that inspires something you were unable to articulate cerebrally. Just begin, and if you find yourself becoming judgmental of the outcome, remember the goal is only to explore.

Create first, edit later.

What you are trying to say may not be abundantly clear at the genesis of your creative journey for any particular song, work or project, but if you open yourself up to feel, the feeling will unravel itself. Sometimes very bad ideas lead to brilliant ideas. Just keep stringing words and thoughts together until something strikes you. Edit later. Just say it in the most plain way, then add color. Maybe you see the visual first. Try to describe that visual. Don’t get too caught up with rhyming or syllables at first, just figure out what you are trying to say. Once you’ve pinned down the feeling or experience you want to write about, start shaping it. Think of other words that describe that feeling/visual and see where they might fit. Imagine that the song is already there, like a big block of marble, and you are just chipping away like a sculptor, revealing your raw emotion in it’s purest form. 

Songs for No One

I know it is imperative to my mental health to take time to write songs that serve no other purpose than being my emotional outlet. They can be sad, slow, unconventional, and completely incoherent. Sometimes these songs I write solely for my own entertainment/sanity end up being crowd favorites. Sometimes they never leave my living room. They are my private masterpieces (or garbage), and I can keep them that way as long as I like. Either way, approaching my creative process like this, without rules or constraints on a regular basis reminds me why I love to create, fosters innovation and depth to my work, and keeps me from getting burnt out. 

Again, remember you are doing this for yourself- for your self expression- only you know the answers to what is “right” or “wrong” in illustrating your unique perspective.

Opinions

If you choose to share your art, or try to make money off of your art, sometimes you will be confronted with opinions and rejection. This isn’t something you should take to heart, or let it discourage you from continuing on your creative journey. You choose how much someone’s opinion has to do with you. Sometimes these opinions will mirror your own doubts, insecurities and weaknesses, and in those cases, use those opinions as constructive criticism to sharpen your craft- they are just confirming truths you already know. Enjoy the process through each stage of growth. In other cases, you will not agree with these opinions. Ignore those ones, and keep pressing forward- bringing your vision into reality. Be honest with yourself, and recognize when an opinion hurts because it’s highlighting a flaw that already bothered you, versus an opinion that is just frustrating because you don’t agree with it (this can be hard when it comes from someone you love or respect). Again, remember you are doing this for yourself- for your self expression-only you know the answers to what is “right” or “wrong” in illustrating your unique perspective. Be true to the feelings and experiences you are trying to encapsulate.

Protect Your Perspective

Protecting your unique perspective is not selfish or indulgent, it is your responsibility to those who feel the same way you do, but cannot yet find the words. I can remember listening to Radiohead in my room as a teenager, crying while listening to Nude, feeling like no one but Thom Yorke knew exactly how I felt. However you feel, I guarantee you, someone has felt or will feel something similar, and if you have the desire and courage to share that, do your very best to encapsulate that feeling with the medium of your choosing, so that others know they aren’t alone. This is our purpose as artists: to turn ourselves inside out so others are able to feel what they need to feel.

Sarah McTaggart, Transviolet


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About Sarah McTaggart

Sarah McTaggart is a songwriter/lead singer of internationally touring indie pop band, Transviolet. After releasing their debut track “Girls Your Age”, the band received accolades from superstars Katy Perry and Harry Styles. They went on to tour with Mikky Ekko, Twenty One Pilots, and LANY; and performed on The Late Late Show with James Corden, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and The Today Show. They are releasing a full length album later this year.