Monday, November 7, 2016

Anxiety, Curiosity, and Creativity

Recently I wrote about “Election Anxiety Disorder,” characterized by – among other things – obsessively checking news sources, social media, polling results, election prediction sites, and the like. Our simian brains seem to be hardwired to zoom in on changes, even small ones, in our environments. Fast-changing visual media like news programs and advertisements rely on this response to attract and hold our attention. In the same way our ancestors might have scanned the horizon for the movement of herds of prey animals or signs of a stalking predator, we scan our information horizon for signs of threat (or reassurance). So it can be difficult to tear ourselves away from that screen or newspaper, particularly when our lives are in so many other ways attached to the flow of information. For many of us, this constant reactivation and connection with sources of perceived threat our anxiety. However, some people use information as a way of managing their anxiety. 

There are many styles of dealing with anxiety, from purely physical to purely intellectual, with pharmaceutical – legal or otherwise – thrown in there, too. I should modify that statement to say these are starting points. Deep, slow breathing and concomitant decreases in blood pressure, heart rate, adrenaline secretion, etc., also affects our thoughts. Talking ourselves through a stressful situation or changing how we think about ourselves or the problems we face also reduces the physiological symptoms of anxiety. No matter where we begin, we end up at the same place.

As I mentioned above, one way to manage anxiety is through information. If we can find out more about something that worries us, often it becomes less threatening. (Not always, of course.) Our fears can distort perceptions and amplify dangers, but information acts as an antidote. It also suggests logical, effective actions to deal with the problem, things that are more likely to be successful than just flying off the handle. Our minds reassure us of our ability to cope with the situation, and the resulting calm further increases our likelihood of success.

Obtaining information is not only anxiety-reducing but pleasurable. Who has not felt a burst of elation upon learning a new incredibly cool fact or mastering a new skill? As writers, we exercise our curiosity about all kinds of things. We joke about “The Joys of Research.” We create characters who are different from us and watch as their stories unfold. We dig out facts about places we have never visited or long-dead civilizations or galaxies visible only by telescope, and then flesh these places out with our imaginations.

Inserting too much research into a story results in the dreaded “infodump.” Too little results in a setting that is flat, bland, generic, or otherwise inert. World-building and character creation interact with “storyness” and plot; when writing is going well, each feeds the other. Information generates ideas of where the story might go, and the story tells us what we need to find out more about.

Play and curiosity are basic human qualities. Both shift our lives from fear of the unknown to active engagement. Many writers not only survive but grow through personal crises through curiosity and the resulting information. When we combine what we know, what we learn, and what we make up, we are in better control of our emotional reactions and our situations. These processes are not unique to writers; they are available to everyone. As writers, we practice these skills on a regular basis. Our work can help us, certainly, but it can also provide a way to insight, safety, and hope for our readers.

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