To All Creatives: Radical Ways to Renovate Your House of Fear

Fear and doubt can take over our bodies like obnoxious house guests whom, after a few years, we’ve unintentionally allowed to move in for the long haul.

You can take a quick survey, sort of like a house carbon test, to see if you’re living in a house of fear: Erratic or shallow breathing? Physical agitation and trembling? A little irritable and excitable? Making sluggish progress on your projects?

These are the questions I’m sitting in: What do fear and doubt do to our creative lives? What are some radical ways to shift those emotions, ways that surpass psychoanalysis?

Granted, there’s good fear and good stress that propel us to and through our creative edge. But I’ve accumulated a wealth of anecdotal evidence – and reviewed the latest science – to know that positive emotions also correlate with increased and more effective creative productivity. Simply put, when we’re feeling better, we think more flexibly and originally and we can produce more consistently.

More than likely, when fear and doubt rule, we don’t progress on our projects. We get delusional about analyzing the causes of doubt rather than taking creative action. We feel sluggish one moment and excitable the next.

Before we know it, a veritable clan of emotional cousins whose names we barely know has taken over the living room.

I don’t mean to make light of this state. I remember the old house of disrepair where I lived while in my twenties. I drew the blinds and rarely let anyone in. At the time, I could see no way out even though I sensed there was one.

I know writers who somehow still write in such a home. Like a kid with six siblings, they learn to tune out the noise and ignore the house’s state of increasing disrepair. One of my friends, who writes features for a major newspaper and who has published six novels, says (despite his frequent influenza and colds) he likes his body-mind the way it is: crowded, loud, and broken down.

The same writer friend also has told me that he often thinks he’d rather write a different kind of novel than the modern Western mysteries for which he duly has earned a reputation. Yet, whenever he starts one of his fantasy short stories, what does he hear? If you’re going to write fantasy, you’d better change your name, or else your fans and friends are going to laugh at you. Don’t you think you should focus more on your feature or your novel that’s a sure sell?

Success as a writer won’t necessarily clean your house of the Heckler and its clan. In fact, success can breed more attachment to the fruits of our writing—the praise, the money, the recognition.

Years of ignoring fear and doubt can wreak havoc. We can unconsciously live in a fight-or-flight response. Our brain might sense danger, which triggers our heart to beat more quickly, and the endocrine system starts releasing excess amounts of adrenaline (the adrenaline rush) and cortisol. Although healthy in moderate amounts, too much cortisol can weaken the immune system and exacerbate a cycle of stress. Our breath quickens, and our digestive system virtually stops functioning. If our fears escalate to anxiety or panic, our abdomen can become distressed. Troubled breathing and shallow breathing, not surprisingly, correlate with coronary complications.

Few of us may have panic attacks when we create, but the point is that these strong emotions can override our desire to create and after several years break down our bodies and embodied minds. We don’t have to create this way.

Here are five ways to start rebuilding your creative house from the foundation:

1. Get moving. Heart-pumping exercise generates more brain cells in an emotional region of the brain that governs fear. And yoga – yes, my practice of choice – can help us shape fear and doubt. Not just face them and definitely not suppress them. But transform them. Fear is not something to be “overcome,” nor is fear a “moral blemish” as some classical Yoga texts suggest. Yoga can reduce the body’s chemistry of fear. One yoga class significantly dropped levels of cortisol in students with mixed backgrounds in practicing Yoga, according to one recent study.2

2. Pay attention to your breath when you create. Pause after the exhalation. Sound hokey? Fine, but doing so calms the sympathetic nervous system (the fight-or-flight response). It also quiets brain activity. And I need all the help I can get. Even just lengthening the exhalation to twice as long as your inhalation can quiet the Heckler. I don’t know how else to say it, but harnessing the out-breath with care and over extended periods of time can change the composition of your house.

The nerve network along your lower back’s spine and the pit of your gut is often called your abdominal brain. Why? A lot happens here. The psoas meets the diaphragm, which moderates our respiration, and here much of our digestion occurs. Two thirds of our body’s blood flows here.

Here we have guts or have a weak stomach for confrontation; we “have a spine” and stand up to fear and doubt, or we get nauseous and bend over. It’s what the Japanese call the hara, their center, literally “gut.” Zen master Daiun Sogaku Harada said, “You have to realize that the center of the universe is your belly-cave.”

Granted, a few simple breaths and stretches alone will not renovate your house, but begin somewhere.

3. Untangle the psoas constrictor. A sixteen-inch serpent called the psoas muscle potentially constricts our courage and contains much of our body’s and imagination’s fear. Imagine a long, snakelike muscle attached near the middle of your spine (at the thoracic vertebra T12, to be exact) that connects to each of the five lower lumbar vertebrae (the lower back), through the pelvis, over the hip’s ball and socket, and tails off at the thighbone’s (femur’s) lesser trochanter, not far from where your leg joins your hip.

Physiologically, the psoas supports the internal organs and helps secure the pelvis. Its sleek body resting at our own body’s central core, this muscle also literally connects our upper and lower halves. The psoas’s head at the midspinal area resides near the central diaphragm—a muscular structure that moderates our breathing. Embedded in the psoas’s “body” along the lower (lumbar) spine are several nerves that work with the diaphragm.

With practice we can uncoil the psoas and change a potential psoas constrictor into a psoas elixir, a muscle that can work with us to release or at least re-direct our fears of creating and of exposing ourselves into giving ourselves the freedom to create and of mustering what existential psychologist Rollo May called “the courage to create.”

Poses such as WARRIOR II (viribrid¯asana II), SIDE-ANGLE POSE (parsvakon¯asana), and some forward bends such as EXTENDED EAST-STRETCH POSE (paschim¯attan¯asana) help lengthen the psoas and give us room to breathe and move. We literally can create space in our bodies to breathe and for our cells to live so they don’t, in a sense, suffer claustrophobia from living in a cramped, balled-up house.

4. Replace fret with creative action. We can spend a lot of money and time trying to get to the bottom of why we’re full of fear and doubt. There can be value in that analysis. But sometimes you’re only left with a narrative explanation for your inertia but are still full of paralyzing fear.

I spend minimal time with clients or in Yoga as Muse workshops analyzing possible causes of their fear and instead discuss how to replace the inaction with creative action. If you fear you’re going to fail at writing a screenplay, start learning how to write a screenplay. If you fear you’ll fall on your face if you try to develop yourself as a keynote speaker, start learning how to become a more confident, skilled speaker. If you doubt your abilities as an exquisite graphic artist, start learning from an exquisite graphic artist.

Good ol’ Aristotle – one of my favorite thinkers who thought a lot about living a good life – said that “character is action.” He meant “character” in terms of plays, and he meant “character” in terms of who we are. Actions, not emotions, define who we are. When we create from a centered place and approach these feelings as something to be acknowledged, expressed, and tempered, maybe we can convert doubt and fear’s fire one brush stroke or key stroke or pen stroke at a time.

Maybe, just maybe, you’ll find yourself in a new house.

What do you think? Am I oversimplifying matters here? How do you work with instead of against fear? I know there are a lot of creatives and some physically oriented people in our community here, so I’d love for you to add to the conversation.

See you in the woods,

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  1. Fear (and procrastination) have been my companions this week.

    Yes — I agree that for me, it works to OWN the fear, rather than thinking about pushing it away. OWN it, then move through it to the other side. Owning it, for me, exposes it for the smallness that it really holds.

    Love your suggestions — they always work (Movement, breath retention, extended side angle, and warrior II).

  2. Did you know that fight-or-flight response is specific to males? It has been enormous for me to begin to investigate, at age 59, the autism/ADD/ADHD spectrum of my family, from my father’s side. My sister, who pursues her own independent investigation, recently clued me in to the fact that women’s stress response is completely different from men’s. We don’t fight or flee; we get quiet. I had an early adult experience of that response, and I was confident enough of my self-awareness to decide that there was a third response, besides fight or flight. All these years later, I have outside confirmation. I didn’t think it was specific to women; in those days, I didn’t want to be specifically a woman, not completely.
    Another point in the article that intrigued me was the psoas. If I have this correctly, it must be very important during pregnancy. Another difference in experience.
    Vive la difference. Perhaps it’s the recent visit of my 21-year-old niece that has set me off onto this tangent. The article is very body-grounded, and I am very body-grounded. But differently. Love

  3. “But sometimes you’re only left with a narrative explanation for your inertia but are still full of paralyzing fear.”

    I agree. It’s usually easier to weave that narrative than it is to short circuit it.

    But I do find it useful to weave a narrative like an epic quest, in which this is only one hurdle that I shall easily clear and sally onward to win glory for lady-love and honour fair. Or something like that =)

  4. I think a little fear is good for the creative process. Being just a little bit scared of doing something is a sign that it has energy, that you’re on the right track. Fear heightens the senses, sharpens the mind. Being afraid means that whatever you are doing maters to you. The trick is not to let the fear freeze you up. The breathing, the movement is the key to that. Both help the body and the mind relax.

    When I was acting, moving through my stage blocking helped serve that function. Now that I spend my working hours writing, I find that if I’m overly tense about a piece I’m working on, I can often keep my mind fluid by reclining as I write (after a movement warmup). I also keep a set of juggling balls in my office, and between thoughts, I’ll pick them up and concentrate on the smooth, fluid motions needed to keep them flying.

  5. Thoughtful reflections, Michael. I agree about this type of fear you describe. In the ’90s, one doctor described eu-stress as a moderately beneficial “dose” of creative stress. If you’re competent and comfortable, you’re probably not rising to your best self’s calling.

    It’s the chronic fear that rocks a house’s foundation over the years.

    I love the image of juggling ideas to keep the embodied mind easeful. Thanks for that and for dropping in at the hut.