This the third post in a series about how starting to change my relationship to thoughts, emotions and actions in order to overcome daily anxiety is affecting my creative process and relationship to music. I hope these posts will be helpful for both myself and others who are faced with the same challenges. Read the others here.
In my previous post, I wrote about how at the onset of therapy, my therapist gave me two tasks: practice deep relaxation and find something nice to look at. I wrote about how the latter led to an experience of being mindful of how my body feels while listening to music, and ultimately a new experience. In this post, I want to write about how deep relaxation has impacted my creative practice.
My therapist has been trying to convince me that whenever thoughts create tension in my body (which is basically from when I wake up to when I go to bed), that it’s indicative of an over-active fight-or-flight mechanism. This is a form of anxiety! She has been explaining that the purpose of our fight-or-flight mechanism is to protect us from present, imminent, life threatening danger. To this I replied “yes, but what about existential danger?”. She reiterated her point, and explained that existential danger (thoughts, fear of past and future fulfilment, wellness etc…) is not present, imminent, life threatening danger, and thus, need not warrant the activation of a fight-or-flight mechanism. This, as I’m beginning to see, is anxiety. I was a bit dumbfounded, as fear and body-tension has been a prime motivational factor in my life and artistic practice for some time!
My therapist, however, has not been leading me by the hand to answers, but instead giving me activities that may lead me to my own conclusions. This first activity was relaxation exercises. She just told me to do them, and I understand now that what she really meant was, just do them, and experience what happens.
So, hyper aware of tension and release in my body, I began my week. The first thing I noticed was how tense my shoulders were. The application in my creative practice here was direct: my body is my instrument! Letting my shoulders deeply release has affected my postural approach to the trumpet. What I’m beginning to experience is balance between feeling the weight of the instrument in my arms and holding it up.
After the first week of relaxation exercises, my therapist asked me to begin to notice when I get anxious and rather than immediately trying to think myself out of the anxiety (rumination!), to first do deep relaxation and then think. What I have begun to learn is that when I feel anxious I begin to start thinking about how to make myself not anxious, which leads to rumination and a lot of confusion. Often I don’t even address what made me anxious in the first place! To break this cycle, as soon as I feel anxious, I am to stop, deeply relax and breath, notice that I am not in any danger and THEN consider my thoughts, feelings and actions.
So, how has this affected my creative practice?
To begin, I am beginning to notice how much practicing music stresses me out. I don’t remember it always being this way, but it sure is now. Here are some of the reasons I have noticed: fear of failure, unresolved technical issues, expectations of perfection, frustration, fear of making my living, no longer understanding the purpose.
How many times have I sat in my studio and when faced with a technical or musical challenge became anxious and tried thinking of a million ways to solve the problem, only to get frustrated and stop? Whether I understood it or not, this process has been going on tacitly in my subconscious for some time, and it hasn’t been helping.
So, something new is beginning to enter my creative practice toolbox.
Step one: Become aware of physical anxiety and rumination. For example: – I’ve missed the 1st attack in this piece a million times, and this is really holding me back, oh shit, if I could just get these first attacks right I’d start enjoying playing again and maybe I’d finally get some work, oh shit, why am I even trying to make a living, there are so many people who can do this better, what’s the point, fine I’ll just do my own thing, fuck everyone, shit, why can’t I do this right etc.. etc.. etc.. meanwhile my chest and throat are getting tighter and tighter.
Step two: Deeply relax and clear my mind. Passive (letting go in my body) or active (tension and release exercises).
Step three: Try playing again. Has approaching the problem in a relaxed way changed anything? Repeat relaxation after each attempt. If the problem isn’t solved this way, move onto step four:
Step Four: Relaxation. See if relaxation has brought any clarity of mind and/or allows me to think healthily about the problem. For example, using gentle inquiry punctuating with relaxation: What exercises can I do to fix this problem? Relaxation. Will experimentation help? Relaxation. Maybe I should ask for advice. Relaxation. Am I trying to solve a physical problem with thoughts? etc…
Step four is still a work in progress, and I hope to expand more upon the idea of inquiry in future posts.
Please leave any questions, comments or related experiences in the comments. What are your tactics for approaching practice without anxiety? Does this happen to you too?
Thanks for reading.