Olivia Remes, an anxiety researcher at Cambridge, has discovered that we can develop coping skills for anxiety through the things we do. She says the way we cope can actually have a direct impact on how much anxiety we experience. We can lower anxiety just by making a few tweaks to how we deal with stress in the first place.
Remes’s technique is something she calls, “Do it badly,” and, for artists, the tools for doing it badly are in the studio. If our job is to solve creative and technical problems, and we do this by repeating actions over and over again until there’s a breakthrough, we can double down on our skill building by working towards creative and technical mastery while at the same time strengthening mental fortitude by stepping up to the discomfort. Think of the sculptor who cracks her marble with a clumsy whack of her chisel. Ten thousand hours later, she’s on a first-name basis with the stone and her tools and knows just how hard to hit it. If you’d accidentally cracked a few thousand pounds of Carrara, a little anxiety would be part of every approach. Past failures, or a fear of future ones can elevate anxiety or, worse, stop us from making anything at all.
It may sound obvious, but jumping in without worrying about how it’s going to turn out — and possibly doing it badly — is a technique that must be refreshed and practiced over a lifetime. Professionals with expectations of themselves, working for deadlines, on commissions and for shows are as vulnerable as nervous beginners. As open play diminishes and performance pressures build, anxiety can walk through the door like an uninvited guest and stifle real, cosmic-level potential. I personally work my own, do-it-badly technique with a private, anxiety-quieting mantra: “What’s the worst that can happen? Removing staples is how I get to all my breakthroughs.”
Esoterica: Remes says there’s a difference between normal anxiety, which we all experience, and an anxiety disorder, a mental illness experienced by 1 in 14 people worldwide. For example, women living in poor areas have a higher risk of anxiety than women living in more affluent areas for the obvious reasons of income, violence, access to childcare and health resources. But when Olivia’s team zoomed in, they found that if the women had coping resources, they didn’t have anxiety. In another study, they saw that people who had faced extreme hardship like war or natural disaster remained healthy and free of mental disorders if they had coping strategies, while those without techniques spiraled into an anxiety disorder. It seems awareness and skill building are a good beginning, because the average amount of time a person waits before seeking help is 10 years.
“Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.” (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)
Join painter/author Ellie Harold in sunny Mexico for a week of immersion in a facilitated discovery of your deepest and most essential artist self. If you’re feeling blocked, thwarted or simply longing for a more meaningful expression, the retreat is a unique opportunity to focus on your life/art purpose, discover new directions and explore next steps. You’ll enjoy your own room in the charming Casa de la Noche in San Miguel’s Historic Centro district, painting and writing (with materials provided), guided reflections and focused discussion with plenty of time to explore the color and culture of this vibrant art city. Created with the needs of mature women in mind, this retreat focuses on process rather than product and is for both experienced and novice art-makers. Limited to 12. Register by November 30 to receive Early Bird free shuttle. Click here for a full description, photos and testimonials from past participants.