Do Anti-depressants Stifle Creativity?

Designed by Luis Prado for the Noun Project

Designed by Luis Prado for the Noun Project

Creatives and mental issues, like anxiety or depression, have been famously paired together for centuries. Gila Lyons explains in The Millions:

[Sigmund] Freud posited that artistic creativity is a product of neurosis; Marcel Proust claimed that, “everything great in the world is created by neurotics;” and Seneca quoted Aristotle as having said, “No great genius was without a mixture of insanity.”

It can be an (often terrifying) catch-22; do you need to be a little “mad” in order to be a great artist, and if you lose that madness, do you lose any of your creative spark? It’s an issue Lyons herself was dealing with when she started suffering intense anxiety and depression that was crippling her life, but (in the final year of her MFA) she was also terrified of losing her artistic edge.

I had heard of many artists who had gone mad or suffered from horrible depression, and took the popular prescription of the day, never to write or create again. Their troubling symptoms had been muted, but so had everything else, their thoughts, perceptions, libidos, and ability to access deep feelings. They reported feeling emotionally void, deadened, seeing life as if through a veil. 

In the end, Lyons decided to take the medication and get help. While she admits to a muting of the overwhelming need to create or sensory overloads, she also raises the question of if creating from a place like that is really any better or more productive than from a place of well-being.

I wouldn’t trade the happiness, the sense of balance, the self-reliance, or the improved relationships I’ve gained from medicine for writing. And perhaps I don’t have to decide between mental health and creativity. It seems that, whether mad or not, people are driven to create in order to understand something about themselves, the world, or their experiences and perceptions… It’s possible that the medicines I take could help me travel a clearer and more direct path to that place…

Read the rest of the article here.

Note: Depression is not something to be taken lightly. If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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  • acarback

    Depression is a bigger threat to creativity to antidepressants. You can’t create anything creative if you slide to far.

    If you are struggling with depression, please seek help. If you are suicidal, please call 1-800-273-8255 (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline).

    • Alan Kolc

      It’s not as simple as measuring your artistic output. When you’re depressed it’s very hard to take your work out into the world and to interact with people who may be interested in it. My history with antidepressants has had its ups and downs, but I’ve certainly had better quantity and quality of work while medicated. A better option is to combine meds with Cognitive/Behavioral Therapy. The therapy offers a way to modify the thinking and behaviors that feed the depression.

  • VitaminCM

    When people think that you need (pain, poverty, fear, etc.) to be creative, they’re just people who are either:
    A. Just not creative and making excuses up
    B. Not thinking straight because of their (pain, poverty, fear, etc.)
    First of all, everyone will suffer – EVERYONE whether they’re healthy or other.
    If you have the chops, you’ll create in spite of it. If you don’t, you just don’t.
    So let’s assume that you DO have some creativity. Would you rather try to make your masterpiece while feeling: Calm or frantic – confident or gripped with fear – lucid or confused? Exactly.
    Ever try to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel when you can’t even get out of bed?
    Get yourself healthy and get to work!

    • Steeph

      I may say I agree with you. I passed through it and I know isn’t good. Maybe we can, for some “lucky”, have some good results, but if your head or thoughts are filled with feelings, will be not too easy to work in some projects. It can be good, if you working only in personal projects, i think. In the time i wasn’t freelancer, just a little kid in this creative world and my works were only personal, i had great results with my feelings. Keep the feelings, emotions and thoughts balanced for work with the brain.

  • dave W

    Anti-depressants are the “soma” from Brave New World.

    “People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get…And if anything should go wrong, there’s soma.”

    • An Onymous

      No, they are medications that treat a debilitating illness.

  • cyranodesydney

    It’s a delicate balancing-act. True, depression will ultimately crush all creativity.
    But masking it pharmaceutically will sedate creativity too. The unfortunate reality is that much creativity springs from pain in all its forms, and creativity is the temporary escape from that pain which results.

    The sharpest, funniest comedians are all deeply troubled people. Happy, contented good looking ones are never funny. Same other creative fields – take a closer look at that good looking creative success story and you’ll find it emanated from personal charisma more than from creative excellence.
    Keep at least one thorn in your side to remind you that you are alive.

    • charalex

      Absolutely right. No feelings = no creativity.

    • An Onymous

      An all too common misperception is that anti-depressants do nothing but provide temporary numbing or escape from personal problems, which are left unresolved. In reality, medications can regulate the chemical imbalances caused by illness in the brain, and when effective, an individual’s ability to function and handle life issues is vastly improved.

      • Chelsea Dennis

        In reality, many antidepressants keep serotonin in the synapse and your neurotransmitters become dependent on the drug keeping serotonin there and your body drastically reduces serotonin production. So, for the first year or so they will make you feel great, but over time they can damage neurotransmitters. You might want to get updated.

      • An Onymous

        Please point to evidence supporting your generalisations!


    I have suffered from depression and anxiety my entire adult life. In college I tried Zoloft and experienced the muted creativity along with dulled senses and side effects. I stopped taking it in order to feel like myself and not a zombie. (And I was going to an ART school!)

    A few years later, I went through a series of extremely traumatizing events that made the depression and anxiety absolutely unbearable, due to a diagnosis of PTSD. After doing my own research and talking to family members about what worked for them, I’m now on Wellbutrin. Combined with therapy, it has worked wonders for me, and doesn’t have the awful side effects of the other types of antidepressants. And BONUS, it helped me quit smoking cigarettes. I’m back to my creative process and living a healthy lifestyle. Thanks to self realization and amazing therapy and treatment, I’m no longer in a cloud of despair. Hope that helps anyone who is suffering from the crippling disease of depression. There’s no shame in seeking help.

  • The One You Feed

    Like anything in life there is no one size fits all formula for this. I think it’s clear that certain anti-depressants mute the range of feeling as well as having other side effects.

    It’s also clear that depression is crippling. A 15 year old girl at my son’s school killed herself last week. She’s not creating anything except pain for a lot of people.

    Depression in a clinical sense does not drive creativity. It is a deadening experience.

    • An Onymous

      “…anti-depressants mute the range of feeling…”

      Yes, the overtones of despair are diminished.

  • qusdis

    I once read a newspaper article that said as far as depression goes, there’s evidence that great artists eventually used their depression experiences but later, not while they were in them. Being depressed cut down their productivity drastically. Not sure if later studies supported that, but it would make sense if depression follows that pattern.

    I don’t think it said anything about other mental disorders such as insanity, etc.

  • Calmer now

    I have suffered from depression and anxiety most of my life and to ease the pain I did express my tormented feelings through my work (painting and poetry). I have been on anti-depressants on and off for the past 15 years and currently taking medication after suffering more anxiety attacks. My conclusion is that I prefer calmness to panic and dark thoughts and I’m still creating through my writing. The results might not be as dramatic but I certainly feel a whole lot better.

  • Scott McLay Forbes

    I’m mad, having both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Having bipolar disorder means being depressed sometimes. I take antidepressants, along with antipsychotic drugs, as well as anti-anxiety medication. None of these drugs cause me any loss of creativity. Of course, I do suffer from mania, which is from the same brain region as creativity. In other words, I’m naturally very creative, and I take the medication every day for depression, and there is no difference in creativity. I can make art much easier without suffering from depression, so in a way anti-depressants can help me a great deal. I love life just the same, it’s only for certain neurotransmitters. A mental illness doesn’t make me productive, however. Where my creativity suffers is that I’m shy and don’t want to compete. I’m not very aggressive or assertive about competition at work. I want to recommend therapy to any of you who are suicidally depressed. It is necessary, in order to resolve issues and problems, to see a counselor. And the illegal street drugs can cause a lot of harm to the brain that is hard to recover late in life, making that black market very avoidable.

  • Chelsea Dennis

    Lexapro definitely dulled my creativity. After 8 years of use my creative edge slowly began to dwindle. I rarely get that spark anymore, when I used to have creative thoughts throughout the day. I wrote, drew, read books, and was active. I wish I had dealt with my ptsd how I am dealing with it now – no meds and an amazing support system to allow me to deal with my issues and heal. To be around people who empower you and put your happiness first. I also developed depression and chronic fatigue syndrome while I was on Lexapro. I felt so dull. Like a shell of who I once was. Going through the withdrawals and dealing with my problems head on will be well worth it for me in the end. I will do what it takes to get my creative edge back. It was the only thing that made me feel purpose and putting an idea on paper was better than sex. I rarely have that natural high anymore. No one can say it doesn’t dampen creativity, because I am proof it can. Just like I cannot speak for everyone else and make assumptions because that would be very ignorant. And I assumed most people who deal with mental illness know that people react to drugs differently and should not make blanket statement. I am wrong, apparently.

    • An Onymous

      Perhaps your medication had a direct negative effect on your creativity, but even if that was the case, it is a mistake to generalise about anti-depressants. These medicines reduce suffering and save lives.

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Information Overload? Embrace “Intentional Ignorance”

Close-Minded by Luis Prado from the Noun Project

Close-Minded by Luis Prado from the Noun Project

The availability of information in the digital age is overwhelming. For every mesmerizing Instagram profile you browse, there are hundreds of millions more. For every page of search results you scroll down, there are thousands upon thousands beyond that one. For every article you read or RSS feed you subscribe to on a research topic, you could spend the rest of your career consuming more where those came from, and never reach the end.

Writer Sarah Von Bargen discovered the magic of “intentional ignorance” when she clicked “mark all as read” in her RSS reader:

[T]his temporary ‘opting out’ has increased my productivity and cleared my mind like nothing else.

You see, I’m deep in ‘creation mode’ at the moment… And all those great articles and clever blog posts and super helpful tutorials that I usually read aren’t helping me get any closer my goals. In fact, they’re distracting and misdirecting me. …

So I’m making the decision to safeguard my focus and productivity. I’m putting the proverbial blinders on and keeping my eyes on my own paper. …

Intentional Ignorance gives you space to do your best work. It frees up mental energy for big, exciting projects. It allows you to focus – with laser-like intensity – on one or two things. …

We all cycle through seasons in our lives and businesses – times when we’re seeking inspiration and insight and times when we need quiet single-mindedness and uninterrupted time. Take a look at where you are and what you’re doing and if you need to turn down the noise, go ahead and click ‘unfollow’ or ‘unsubscribe’ or even just ‘mark all as read.’

The internet will still be here when you get back.

Taking an information sabbatical is like giving yourself the gift of ignorance-as-bliss. What you don’t know that you don’t know can’t hurt you. You can adopt the principle of intentional ignorance even when you’re not in need of hyperfocus on a certain project. Set a monthly calendar reminder to scroll through all the content you’ve saved using your tool of choice—Pocket, Evernote, Pinterest, Google Docs—and delete anything that you’re not going to read right this second. Think you’ll get to those articles or videos at some point? As von Bargen points out,

I’m here to tell you that a) that won’t happen b) all those unread newsletters carry an immeasurable psychic weight. They make you feel bad just sitting there, all unread! Dude, delete them. That’s what Google is for.


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Stop Ending Your Client Emails With This Phrase

Remove email icon by Lloyd Humphreys from the Noun Project

Remove email icon by Lloyd Humphreys from the Noun Project

Over on the InVision blog, freelancer Robert Williams shares some valuable intel on how you can strengthen your client emails. He gleaned serious insights when he found client after client backing out or not replying to his messages, leaving him without work and increasingly stressed:

[T]here’s one huge problem that almost every freelancer I’ve met suffers from: they use a phrase that hurts their credibility and repels clients.

“Let me know how I can help.”

When I said this I honestly thought I was being helpful. I’d close almost every email with some variation of “Just let me know…” It felt like the right way to end an email. …

By ending my emails like this, I was dropping a wheelbarrow full of work on my client’s desk and saying “Here. You deal with it.” It reeked of incompetence. …

So I began to do the complete opposite and prescribe solutions at the end of every email. … Just by suggesting a next step at the end of my email, I was able to double the amount of people who responded to me.

This next step was different for every email, but it always followed the same 2-step structure. I would include:

– My suggested next step
– What we could do in the event they don’t want to do that

… If someone wanted a meeting, I’d suggest a time and instead of saying, “Let me know if this works for you.” I’d switch that out for, “If not, then X time/day also works or I’m free at X time/day.” …

You’re not just saving yourself the extra time of writing 2 separate emails, you’re saving you (and your client) the time in between these emails.

Williams suggests writing every single client email with whatever your next step is going to be in mind. Make every sentence reinforce that next step, whether it’s a confirmation of the deliverable you’ll be sending on a specific date, a request for feedback that you need by the next week, or an agenda for your upcoming call.

As Elizabeth Grace Saunders pointed out in a past 99U piece, effective people “always add value” with their email. She suggests that replying just for the sake of replying is a waste of time. Per both Williams’s and Saunders’s guidance, aim to always add something of communicative value to your email correspondence with clients. If you don’t, you’re making yourself more of a burden than a help.


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How to Be as Productive as Your High School Self

You in high school: a dramatization.

You in high school: a dramatization.

Impossible Ventures founder Joel Runyon was one of those high school overachievers who balances sports, extracurriculars, a social life, and an advanced course load all while making great grades and still having free time to, as he says, “jack around.”

Since you read 99U, you probably have at least a little of the high school overachiever in you, too. The challenge is tapping into that high-gear productivity DNA as an adult in the working world. It was so much easier to have it all back in high school. The barometer of success was much more clear-cut, and there was a substantial safety net just one stumble away. There were letter grades to measure your performance, and standardized tests to evaluate how capable you were compared to your peers. You had a much stricter schedule with less control over your daily routine, which established boundaries and limits that fed productivity.

With all that in mind, Runyon took a critical retrospective eye to his habits as a 16-year-old powerhouse, and came up with some helpful tips:

Make Your Lunch The Night Before

… Packing your lunch the night before is a good ritual. It helps you wind down for the evening and gets your body mentally ready to fall asleep, so the rest of the week can go according to plan. …

Get In Bed By Midnight

You can stay up as late as you want, as long as you’re in bed by midnight.

If you’re in bed by midnight, you’ll have no problem getting up at 5:30 or 6. If you’re in bed at 1am, you’ll sleep till noon. …

When School / Work Is Over, Leave

Don’t stay at work longer than you have to. I don’t stay at school longer than I have to. It’s practically a race out the doors. …

Schedules Make Things Real

… Practice? Write it in.

Hanging out? Know when your free time is (schedule it). …

Bonus: make sure you have people at each place who will hold you accountable. Show up late and you’ll be running suicides. …

Do It With Friends

Anything you do with friends will be 2x as much fun and will have 1/2 the stress than if you do it alone.

Even AP Physics can be fun – if you’re with the right people.

It may seem unattainable to reach your high school productivity levels given the added pressures and responsibilities of adulthood. But science shows that during high school you are poised biologically to be deeply impressed by your experiences while you also form your first sense of identity. So today, those helpful habits are primed for the plucking somewhere in your mental makeup. And this time, you can adopt them without the teenage acne and traumatizing bad haircut.


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How Pessimism Can Improve Your Life And Work

A new video by The School of Life explores the unappreciated wisdom of pessimism. Negative thinking gets a bad rap, but in fact it can ironically have a positive effect on your productivity and creativity. As The School of Life argues, pessimism prepares you for the worst, reduces your expectations, and protects you from disappointment—all helpful for your psyche as well as your creative output:

We live in an absurdly and painfully optimistic world. Mostly, that’s the result of all the businesses out there trying to sell us things, and understandably using cheerfulness to do it. And partly, it’s the influence of technology, which is always getting better, coloring our view of life as a whole, which often isn’t improving. …

For centuries, religions peddled dark messages. Buddhism told its followers that life was suffering. Christianity spoke of the fallen state of mankind, and of the inevitability of earthly imperfection. That was helpful; it kept our expectations in check.

The psychologist William James came up with an equation: Happiness = Expectations / Reality. So there are two ways to ensure contentment. Change reality, or change expectations. Pessimists know to reduce the expectations.

Writer Barbara Ehrenreich takes the espousal of pessimism a step further in her acclaimed book Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America. As she writes in a piece for The Guardian, it’s not just that pessimism has benefits for us; optimism can actually be psychologically harmful:

Like a perpetually flashing neon sign in the background, like an inescapable jingle, the injunction to be positive is so ubiquitous that it’s impossible to identify a single source. Oprah routinely trumpets the triumph of attitude over circumstance. A Google search for “positive thinking” turns up 1.92m entries. A whole coaching industry has grown up since the mid-90s, heavily marketed on the internet, to help people improve their attitudes and hence, supposedly, their lives. …

[But this] ideological force in American culture… encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune and blame only ourselves for our fate.

You undoubtedly have, and will continue to, hit roadblocks on your path in life and work. But by recognizing that cheerfully assuming everything will shake out in your favor, and maintaining unrealistically sky-high expectations, is dangerous and unproductive, you’ll be able to clear those roadblocks in such a way that enables you to learn, grow and—most importantly—move on.

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How (and Why) You Should Read More

Book by Mike Ashley from the Noun Project

Book by Mike Ashley from the Noun Project

There’s no question that reading enriches your life. Reading imparts fresh inspiration, keeps your brain sharp, improves your writing, can relax you, and even benefits your health. Devoting the time and mental energy needed to read an entire book, as opposed to the snackable content (tweets, blog posts, email newsletters) that makes up the Internet, is a deeply rewarding experience. You go on an intimate journey with an author, by way of which you become much more immersed in the topic at hand than you’d be able to after a few hundred words of “like”-able discourse.

But how to make time for reading books (physical or e-)? From Rype’s blog, a few handy suggestions:

Learn To Read Faster

… Since the average reader reads around 250–300 words per minute, being able to double your reading speed at 500–600 words will allow you read twice the number of books in the same amount of time. …

a. use a pointer

Use either a pen or your index finger to keep track of your speed when reading. This will be useful for the second technique.

b. expand your peripheral vision

Start reading 3 words in from the first word of each line and end 3 words in from the last word.

Schedule It

Reading more books can simply come from making more time for it.

Scheduling your most important tasks can become one of the most productive things you can do, whether you’re making time to read, learn a language, or master a skill. …

It can be as little as 15–30 minutes in the morning before your work, or during lunch hours.

Drop It If You Don’t Love It

… If you want to read more books, retain more, and double your knowledge, you need to have a passion for what you’re reading. …

Don’t be afraid to quit if you don’t love it.

It’s what will lead to what you love.

Keeping track of how many books you read each year can be a huge motivator. You get the satisfaction of adding an item to your list each time you close the cover of a book for the last time, and can challenge yourself to increase your total each year. Sites like Goodreads and Shelfari help you log your read count and set an annual goal.

Reading is one of the three R’s of childhood education for a reason. And assuredly, Sir William Curtis—credited with coining the phrase—had books in mind when he said it.


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The Method Actor Approach to Design


Legendary graphic designer Michael Bierut, Pentagram partner and protégé of design legend Massimo Vignelli, lets the world into his creative process in his new monograph How to Use Graphic Design to Sell Things. A particularly interesting element is his “method actor” approach to graphic design, as he tells FastCoDesign:

[S]omeone says you want to do the signs for the New York Times?… [T]o do the work properly, I have to talk to editors, I have to sit in on the page-one meeting where they decide how page one is going to be laid out…

If you just have a request for proposal where the client says we need X, Y, and Z, that really just gives you the shopping list… It’s sort of like saying, I need a pair of pants and a shirt. But then, where are you going to wear it, how much are you going to spend? I’ll stand you in front of a mirror and you have to feel like you’re the kind of person who can wear those clothes.

So going to all those meetings, if all I cared about were typefaces or colors, I’d be sitting, fidgeting, thinking, “Why am I here? This is boring.” Instead, I was thinking “I can’t believe I’m here, I can’t believe that without ever taking a journalism class I’m actually sitting with the top editors at the New York Times and I’ll know before any other civilian does what’s going to be the story that appears in the first column on the left of tomorrow’s paper.” I had that momentary thrill.

Wrapping yourself up in the topic of your work so that you’re truly invested doesn’t just translate into more effective and impactful work. It also keeps you more fulfilled and motivated as an artist. Because the method actor approach to acting isn’t just about inhabiting the character fully so that you never lift the veil to reveal your true self until after the project is completed. Ultimately, method acting is about just being, as opposed to putting something on or performing. And if you can get to that place in your work when you’re not feigning interest or curiosity, but truly “feeling it,” that’s where the art lies.


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Austin Kleon: How To Be a “Scenius”

By Austin Kleon

By Austin Kleon

Writer and artist Austin Kleon, of Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work! fame, is a big supporter of creatives that can contribute to an artistic community as opposed creating in their own vacuum. In FastCo Create, he borrows the term “scenius” from the musician Brian Eno to encourage artists to change their end goal from being a genius to being a creative contributor:

Kleon cautions against the artistic myth of the lone genius pounding away in a garret somewhere…. He created his own scenius online. Kleon says, “I think what has been the most remarkable in my career is that I’ve never been part of a geographical scene. I didn’t move to New York after college. I didn’t move to L.A. I moved to Cleveland, and there’s not a whole lot of a scene there. But what I did have was the Internet, and I became part of a scenius by putting my work out there. I started blogging in 2005, and back then, we were all connected, we just didn’t have social media in the same way as we do now. You’d just post things to your blog and people would send you comments or emails and you’d slowly find people as they stumbled across your work. When I did work I really liked and put it online, it attracted the people I wanted to meet. For me, being online, that was my scenius. That was my moving to New York in the ’70s. Or Paris in the ’20s.”

Kleon notes that you don’t have to be in the same medium as the people in your scenius. In fact, it helps if you’re not. He says since moving to Austin, he’s fallen in with musicians and filmmakers in addition to writers and artists, and those relationships have informed his work.

The key to being a scenius is to create something every single day. A constant stream of creative outpout ensures that you remain a vital part of a creative community. As Kleon told 99U in an interview:

We all get 24 hours. No one gets more time. Sure, you might have your job, you might have a kid, you might have a family—I had all of those things when I was writing my first book—but when you get ruthless about what you really want to do, there are so many gaps. So many little spaces in the day where you can find the time….

It happens a lot of in creative work that you finish a project and you don’t know what to do next. It can be a bit disconcerting. And I think that’s why it’s so important to have a daily practice that you do no matter what you are working on.

Your work, no matter what it is, matters. When you put it out there every day for your creative scene to absorb and consume, you cultivate your own brand and the community in tandem. That’s what being a scenius is all about.


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