Affect Regulation and the Creative Artist

By Cheryl Arutt, Psy.D.

Creating art has always been a way to channel emotional intensity.

In a world where destructive acting out is all too frequent (and meticulously documented and sensationalized on the news and TMZ), sublimating painful feelings by expressing them in the form of artistic expression allows the artist to choose to “act out” in a way that is constructive.

Many creative people carry the belief that their pain is the locus of their creativity, and worry that they will lose their creativity if they work through their inner conflicts or let go of suffering.

These artists hold onto their pain as if it were a lifeline, even finding ways to enhance it, leading to some patterns of behavior that won’t “turn off” even when they want them to.

The “source” becomes the obstacle.

Recent discoveries and research using brain-imaging equipment have led to an explosion of knowledge about how our brains actually work.

Some of the signals our brains receive are chemically identical, but are interpreted based on the meaning we make.

For example, excitement just before a performance and stage fright may both express themselves with an adrenaline rush and a pumping heart.

If the performer thinks, “I am so excited to get out there and do what I love,” then those signals will be processed as consistent with excitement, but if the performer thinks “Oh God!  I don’t think I can do this!” those same chemical signals will escalate the body’s danger response.

The feelings themselves may even be interpreted as proof that danger exists, leading to more adrenaline, more fear, and so the cycle grows.

When we are in danger, a very primitive fight-or-flight response takes over, making us reactive and energized, but at a price: the higher order functions that allow us to generate multiple approaches or solutions, to plan and contemplate consequences – those abilities go completely off-line.

Many of the capacities we have when we are at our best become unavailable to us because our thinking takes shortcuts in the service of survival.

Finding ways to maintain that optimal zone where we are neither under- or over-stimulated allows us to use our minds to respond rather than to react.

If you are an artist, you are your instrument.

The greater access you maintain to yourself, the richer and broader your array of creative tools.

Learning how to regulate stress and danger, especially how to recognize when we are safe allows us to maintain access to those higher order functions and flexibility of thinking.

If we’re lucky, these abilities may have been learned in childhood, but they can also be developed later on with the proper training.

Rather than shutting down more intense experiences, these emotional “muscles” and strategies provide the breadcrumb trail to find our way back from intense states, allowing us to visit certain states of mind for creative purposes (or to learn about ourselves), without finding ourselves trapped there.

I have always believed that the best way to protect the art is to protect the artist.

These skills need not be feared as antithetical to art.

Learning how to regulate internal states, how and when to use self-soothing techniques, and how to know when we are actually safe — these are key to emotional well-being for anyone, but for artists, they are especially useful.

The ability to self-regulate provides an all-access pass for traveling the internal world, allowing the artist to mine for the gems that can be found there  . . . without losing touch with the light of day.

Cheryl Arutt, Psy.D., a frequent psychological expert on CNN, HLN, truTV and Fox News, is a licensed clinical psychologist in Los Angeles, specializing in creative artist issues, trauma recovery, and fertility.

She is the author of Healing Together: A Program for Couples, contributor to Mom360 magazine, and a forensic and media consultant.



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More material on topics of emotional well-being, emotional health, and managing emotions:

TEDx video – Cheryl Arutt on That Good Feeling of Control

TED summary: This talk explores self-regulation as the basis for mental health, how trauma disrupts this, and ways new technology and discoveries are creating exciting opportunities to teach, learn and treasure what one self-regulation pioneer referred to as “that good feeling of control.”

Video: Psychologist Cheryl Arutt on Creativity, Sensitivity and Suffering


See more videos in my Creative Mind channel on Psychology & Mental Health.

Audio interview: Psychologist Cheryl Arutt on Mental Health and Creative People.

Another article: The Artist’s Unconscious and the Metaphor of Birth, By Cheryl Arutt.

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Photos and links to other articles on topics of emotional well-being, emotional health, and managing emotions – added by site author Douglas Eby:

Christian Bale gained the nickname “Tandy” because he was always throwing tantrums. – From post: Anger and creativity.

Director Tim Burton has said, “If you want people to leave you alone then appearing to be crazy is a good thing…I’ve always been blessed with being easily ignored or avoided. I think maybe it’s because people think I look a little crazy.”

> From post: Madness and creativity: do we need to be crazy? – which includes a video interview with Shelley Carson, Ph.D. of Harvard University, who teaches and conducts research on creativity, psychopathology, and resilience. “Craziness” is one way people think about others with high intensity or unusual levels of passion and excitement.

Lower photo: Musician Sting commented in the documentary All We Are Saying: “Do I have to be in pain to write? I thought so, as most of my contemporaries did; you had to be the struggling artist, the tortured, painful, poetic wreck. I tried that for a while, and to a certain extent that was successful. I was ‘The King of Pain’ after all. I only know that people who are getting into this archetype of the tortured poet end up really torturing themselves to death.”

> From post: Pain and suffering and developing creativity.

More related posts and a site:

Artists are Crazy; Mothers Can’t Be Artists, and Other Myths

Mental Health related posts

Celebrities with anxiety and panic attacks

Managing Creative Anxiety: Change Your Thinking – includes material on the book Mastering Creative Anxiety, by Eric Maisel, PhD.

Anxiety Relief Solutions site

  See products and programs on my Personal Growth Information site
in various categories including Anxiety / Stress and Mental Health.


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