How to Channel Anxiety in a Positive Way

Where Are You On Maslow’s Pyramid?

“We may define therapy as a search for value.”

-Abraham Maslow

Abraham Harold Maslow (1908-1970), an American psychologist best known for “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”- a theory that employs the notion that in order to achieve one’s highest potential, one must not be lacking in any of the four essential needs of the pyramid. Of these four needs that precede the self-actualization level of the pyramid, the following must be satisfied:

  • Esteem- The desire to be valued and accepted, power, recognition.
  • Love/Belonging- Family, friends, intimacy, inclusion.
  • Safety- Money, health, stability, and a sense of personal and family safety, property, employment.
  • Physiological- Air, clothing, food, water, shelter, rest.
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs helps outline the components needed to ensure happiness and self-actualization.

Maslow, who referenced his own work as, “positive psychology”, called the four bottom levels of his five-level model, the “deficiency needs.” These needs are called deficiency needs because, without them, we feel uncomfortable and anxious. However, when these needs are met, we are not likely to notice, or feel any different, simply because they are innate needs.

The highest of Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” is self-actualization. This tier includes things such as morality, creativity, problem-solving, and spontaneity. Self-Actualization is the ability and desire to meet one’s fullest potential or to accomplish as much as one’s ability allows. Self-actualization is achieved when we are equipped and ready to “level up.” In other words, when we don’t have to worry about the basics, we have more resources available to consider our growth and development.

What Things Hinder An Individual’s Personal Growth?

When a person is living with constant fear, it is more difficult to get their needs met. For instance, when an individual feels threatened, their brain prompts the fight-or-flight response. At that state, it is unlikely that the person who is plagued by fear will have to ability to effectively utilize problem-solving skills. Additionally, that person will be so focused on meeting their safety needs, as well as the need for love/belonging and esteem.

In an effort to subdue distress and anxiety, people often use what Freud called, “defense mechanisms.” Furthermore, many individuals who suffer from anxiety may also substitute their deficiencies. Instead of adopting healthy habits that will help us achieve our needs (and thus, self-actualization), we may feel compelled to feel a sense of love/belonging by controlling our appearance or employing unhealthy eating habits. Another example would be family dysfunction or a dysfunctional household. The teenager who lives in an alcoholic family may undertake the role of the nurturing parent. Another person may take a different route- perhaps by running away or seeking solace by withdrawing from the family.

The How And What Of Defense Mechanisms

While Maslow focused his work on the study of what makes humans happy, the Austrian neurologist, and founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud explored other elements of the human psyche, such as sexual energy being the driving force behind our unconscious behaviors. Freud noted several defense mechanisms people use to protect themselves from anxiety.

  • Repression
  • Denial
  • Projection
  • Displacement
  • Regression
  • Sublimation

Freud's Defense Mechanisms

Sublimation: A “Mature” Defense Mechanism

Psychiatrist and professor at Harvard Medical School, George Vaillant, contends that many of the aforementioned defense mechanisms can be harmful to us, but concluded that more “mature defenses”, like sublimation, can be productive. Vaillant proposed four layers of defense mechanisms:

  • Narcissistic
  • Immature
  • Neurotic
  • Mature

Some common examples of sublimation include channeling aggression into a sports activity, or painting when one wishes to express, in a socially-acceptable behavior, the pain they feel from a broken relationship.

Sublimation can be used to control negative impulses associated with anger, jealousy, disappointment, sadness, and mistrust.

Many notable creative and literary work have been bestowed upon humanity, most likely, as a result of the use of the sublimation defense mechanism. Van Gogh is reported to have painted one of his most prominent paintings, The Starry Night, while hospitalized at Saint-Remy. The painter Jackson Pollock, employed “action painting” into his creations. The use of movement and expression involved in this type of pursuit likely utilized the sublimation defense mechanism to deal with his own internal conflicts and anxieties.

While both artists had personal struggles- Van Gogh had mental health issues and Pollack had a tendency to become violent when drinking, it can be surmised that their ability to express themselves artistically may have helped them channel at least some of their negativity into more positive ways of dealing with their problems. Possibly, life could have been better for these artists, but we can truly never know the depths of their psyches.

Maslow’s pyramid indicates that one characteristic of self-actualization as the ability to be creative and spontaneous, independent, and honest. Pollock was widely regarded for his authenticity in his painting style. Was he true to himself? Could he have been even more successful as an artist, or even, as a husband to fellow artist Lee Krasner?

Other psychologists theorize that self-actualization involves fulfilling an altruistic need, that is, the ability to serve humanity. Perhaps by using sublimation defense mechanisms (sports, art, science, etc.), we can manage our anxieties until all our hierarchical needs are fully met. We can “fake it ‘til we make it.” Although it is challenging at times to consider altruistic endeavors, once we can find a way to overcome ourselves, we can be equipped to use our gifts to serve others.

References:

  1. https://outre-monde.com/2015/10/01/a-philosophical-cure-for-anxiety/
  2. http://www.pursuit-of-happiness.org/history-of-happiness/abraham-maslow/
  3. https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-monroecc-hed110/chapter/theory/
  4. https://www.simplypsychology.org/defense-mechanisms.html#why
  5. https://www.verywellmind.com/biography-of-abraham-maslow-1908-1970-2795524
  6. https://www.psychologistworld.com/freud/defense-mechanisms
  7. https://psychologenie.com/understanding-concept-of-sublimation-in-psychology
  8. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jackson-Pollock

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How OCD Nearly Destroyed My Creativity

One of the things that helped soothe my mind as a child was art. I had a special affinity for drawing people. Teachers noticed my skills and would shine the spotlight on my artwork sometimes. I became known as a good artist by my classmates. I always believed I would choose a career path that utilized my artistic talents. By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I started to become disenchanted with the concept of art. In school, art was never very disciplined.

Once I took art classes at college, it was very different. I hated using charcoal pencils, pastels, and paints. My artwork no longer represented my creativity, but rather, it reflected “mental clutter” and oppressive memories. I started purging my pencil and charcoal sketches that I had devoted so much time and energy. I did not want these remnants of my past, for whatever reasons.

In my early thirties, I began favoring a more minimalistic home environment, much to my family’s dismay. I was unable to have any kind of clutter. This meant I could not pursue my art anymore, though I tried to keep my interest in art alive by doing art with my kids. I would buy art supplies, make arts and crafts, then throw the supplies and designs away. It also meant that my husband and I would have arguments over what he wanted to save and what I wanted to discard or donate. He wanted the basement to remain undisturbed. He did, in fact, want to hoard too many things, but the truth is told, he had a point. My thoughts were impeding on the liberties of others in my home.

OCD or A Bipolar Trying To Control External Stimuli?

It’s odd that I started to favor a minimalistic theme in my life. I loved to see art, I loved to be surrounded by cozy objects in other people’s homes- just not my own. My mind became cluttered with stimuli if I allowed any empty space in my house. My kids said our house looked like we just moved in. I tend to agree with them! The mission to maintain a clutter-free house consumed me- OCD Decluttering! Absolute madness, yet disregarded by many that do not see the damage caused by this disorder.

Assigning Values To OCD Stress & Triggers

I don’t know what has caused my OCD symptoms to lessen. Perhaps the passage of time, or maybe I have become more mindful of the destructive ways of OCD. When I have become overwhelmed, I have purged “things”…clothes, paper, the pantry, anything I could get my hands on! I try to minimize things that trigger OCD. For instance, I try to avoid doing too many things I dislike in one day. I won’t grocery shop and drive excessively on the same day if I can help it. Maybe somebody should try to assign numbers to indicate varying degrees of stress for daily activities. I know there are such systems for monumental stressful life events (such as jail, divorce, job loss, etc.). For people suffering from anxiety or OCD, this would be ideal.

Reconciling OCD, Rekindling My Creativity

My OCD symptoms have diminished in the last few years… I haven’t thought too much lately how far I have come with my anxiety and OCD because I have been distracted by other issues. Visiting an art museum has helped me to become inspired by art once again.

In my previous post, I wrote about being happy when I am out in nature. Nature is beauty in its simplest form, no clutter or embellishments. Art is the creation of man (and woman). It is not necessarily simple, yet I find it beautiful and edifying. I have become less focused on intrusive, unimportant worries about clutter, and more concerned about what is involved in the making of the things that are in my surroundings. Processes, engagement, activity: things that are relational help make the visual beauty in a way that has depth. This is beyond what was once shallow. Everything that is material or visual is not superficial to me any longer.

Why I Love My Bipolar Mania!

Mania Can Feel Like Euphoria At Times

Although experiencing “flight of ideas” in of itself is not a mental disorder, it is a symptom of those with bipolar disorder. All that mania and energy needs to be channeled somehow- it is best used in creative endeavors. When I experience the highs of mania, I become the idea person– the person who conjures up dozens (or more) ideas, concepts, processes, etc., only to never really follow through any of them. By the time the idea(s) is(are) manifested and it is time to develop the ideas, my mind is off somewhere else…perhaps I am so down again that I can barely find any desire to become “goal-directed”. This is not a particularly desirable quality for my vocation.

As a result of the flaws of my manic episodes, I can use my moments of mania to augment my work life, but I can’t allow myself time to pursue anything loftier than my menial job. As a middle-aged worker, I am able to look back upon my vocational lifespan and know that I don’t consistently have all the qualities necessary to get the sweet, 9-5 job in an ad agency. Those people, as far as I can see, have a different kind of attitude when it comes to creativity. 

In the arrogance of my youth (or the ignorance of my youth), I figure I would benefit from going to college. I never obtained even a two-year degree in any one course of study. I was neither inspired or encouraged as a young person- I had a desire to go to school, but I lacked the tenacity to finish the one class that was standing in the way of my moving on in college.

Drawing for me is a release- I am able to focus and generate some clarity through these lines and shapes. Through these seemingly benign and naive patterns, I can somehow see the patterns of my life, even if they are mere fragments of a shattered lens.

So, I never completed my Marketing & Sales certificate- or the Graphic Design degree in which I transferred. The Sociology degree I desired to obtain was just too impractical and unlikely. It doesn’t mean I’ve given up on education or enrichment. I simply had to change the way I sought these things.

Mania- it can make me feel more creative. Bipolar disorder isn’t as simple as many are led to believe. It’s can be difficult to focus on complex tasks without the help of notebooks, post-its, and my trusted computer. These tools serve as ways to process many simultaneous thoughts and ideas.

When it comes to employment, the volatile and changing nature of the bipolar disorder can limit one’s career choices and success, no matter how much skill or talent one possesses.

Many people who struggle with mental health issues (like myself), may find menial jobs comforting- for they are predictable and help us to feel anchored in some regards. I find that my mind has time to wander, instead of being consumed by mental-overload.

I try to make the most out of an otherwise undesired and limiting aspect of my life and choices. I still have dreams and creativity.