Mindfulness: A Healthy Alternative to Substance Abuse for Creative People

By Kenneth England, MFT, Primary Therapist at Promises MalibuCreative people have long been associated with lavish use and abuse of alcohol and drugs. Many talented people have been molded by the idea that drinking and drugs inspire their craft. Although scientists have long looked for a direct link between creative inspiration and drug use, they have not found one.
young woman sitting in lotus pose yoga with sun shining

But there is research showing that mindfulness – the opposite of self-soothing with substances – may inspire creativity. This is because mindfulness helps people cope with the stress, anxiety and depression that often lead to substance abuse.

Mindfulness Changes Things in a Moment

Mindfulness is about focusing on the present. It’s possible to be stressed or anxious about a deadline in one moment, but then turn things around if you take a moment to breathe, meditate or pay attention to what is happening in your body.

Sometimes creative people get paralyzed with anxiety about being about to produce and catastrophize about what people will think of their work. If you use mindfulness in a moment of panic, instead of reaching for a drink or drug, you may find you’re not anxious anymore because you haven't been thinking about future worries or past depressing or traumatic events. It's harder to be depressed or anxious when you're in the moment.

Mindfulness is taught to people trying to maintain sobriety after drug rehab. It can also be used as a preventive measure or to help with other compulsions, such as sex, gambling and eating disorders.

Here are some techniques for the creative person’s toolbox:

1. Trade mythology for the present moment.

If you associate success with substance use, it’s time to disconnect the two. One comedy writer shared that she went to Algonquin Hotel in New York City every day for a month to get drunk. She imagined she'd receive inspiration to finish her movie script by "sitting there drinking what Dorothy Parker drank with the famous members of the Algonquin Round Table." She ended up with one too many hangovers and few words on the page. When she learned mindfulness techniques to break through writers' block, she found that just sitting in the lobby and sipping tea allowed her to quiet her mind and soak inspiration from the historic location. She took a notebook with her and tried mindful narrative writing, jotting down whatever came to mind. In two months her first draft was complete.

2. Commit to regular practice.

Find a method that works for you and create a structure that allows you to be consistent. Regular practice, often the same time each day, helps retrain your brain. A musician who’d been struggling with writing new songs shared that he meditates by playing free-style music for 10 minutes every morning, just letting his fingers move along his guitar and allowing the words to flow out, even if they are gibberish at first. Some simple approaches to mindfulness meditation include:

  • Guided meditations on audio or video
  • Chants, prayers or contemplative music
  • Creating a special place at home where they sit in silence for five to 30 minutes each morning

3. Find your happy place.

Having a safe space to “go to” in your mind is key. It may be a beach, backyard or mountaintop. Try a guided meditation that brings you into a deeply relaxed state and asks you to imagine yourself in a beautiful place where you feel totally happy, free and safe. Some people have one specific place and others have several. When you identify the place and practice imagining it in your mind’s eye, it becomes easier to slip into it. Accessing your happy place is a way to diffuse frustration, stress and anxiety and can get you through struggles that might otherwise lead you to reach for substances or another destructive behavior.

4. Master on-the-spot meditations.

Some creative folks reach for a drink, drug or food when they feel the creative process blocked. In her book Positive Energy, psychiatrist Judith Orloff, MD, recommends that people with compulsive eating issues keep a meditation cushion in the kitchen. If they find themselves looking for food they can stop, sit down and meditate instead of eating. Sitting down to meditate can put physical distance between you and the urge to overeat. It can also give you a time out to clear your mind and make healthier choices. The choice may be to wait until dinner, or to have a carrot instead of ice cream. This can be applied to anything unhealthy you may reach for out of creative frustration.

5. Try walking meditation.

Research shows that movement and mindfulness can clear the mind for new ideas to flow. There are structured walking meditations that help you stay in the present moment by focusing on the movements of your body, such as the feeling as one foot comes up and the other goes down. Meditation expert Jack Kornfeld describes it as a way to develop calm, connectedness and awareness. It helps to have a regular path for walking meditation. People walk along the ocean, labyrinths and gardens created for contemplation, but it could be a city street or a country road. The comedy writer who once sought a creative connection to Dorothy Parker by drinking at the Algonquin now finds nothing helps her writing more than a mindful walk in the morning.

There are many examples of creative people who went through difficult times and funneled that into artistic endeavors. It can be a creative catharsis when done for the purpose of healing. But don’t be fooled by the romanticized image of the tortured artist. Mindfulness can ease you through a rough patch or creative block better than alcohol or anything else to distract you from pain.

An entertainment professional said, “I'm worried about not being creative without my alcohol and my drugs." But substance use doesn’t make your talent; it's more likely to break it.

It will take time to develop your mindfulness skillset and meditation practice. But you don’t have to wait for a visit from the muse. One of the most important creative tips of mindfulness is: Just start creating. All it takes is the first word, first stroke of a paint brush or first note on an instrument. Ultimately things flow from the action of the first step. And use your mindfulness techniques along the way.

Posted on March 14th, 2018

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