“Am I more than just the sum of every high and every low?”- You Say, song by Lauren Daigle
For most of my adult life, I’ve relished and craved the highs of creative inspiration. In my experience, little compares to the exhilaration of being fully immersed in a creative stream of consciousness.
Unfortunately, creative personality types eventually discover that, despite their best efforts, the flames of inspiration don’t always burn bright. As much as we might like to feel perpetually inspired, the fact remains that even the most reliable muses sometimes take a vacation.
One of the problems with creative euphoria is it can make “ordinary” experience feel more ordinary, even just plain dull. Less creative individuals seem relatively unaffected by these lower energy states, perhaps because they’re less familiar with creative highs. If your top speed is only 55 mph, cruising at 45 doesn’t feel all that different. Dropping from a higher speed (e.g., 85 mph), however, feels much more dramatic, making 45 seem like a snail’s pace.
Further complicating matters is the fact that creative personalities are more likely to experience what’s called cyclothymia. There’s still some debate as to whether it’s best considered a type of temperament or a mood disorder. Cyclothymia is essentially a milder version of bipolar disorder, marked by moods that swing from euphoric highs (i.e., “hypomania”) to depressive lows. Since symptoms are often mild or transient, mental health treatment is often not (but in some cases should be) pursued. According to Mayo Clinic, common signs and symptoms include:
- Strong feelings of happiness or well-being (euphoria)
- Extreme optimism
- Inflated self-esteem
- Talking more than usual
- Racing thoughts
- Increased physical or social activity
- Heightened drive to perform or achieve goals (sexual, work, or social)
- Decreased need for sleep
- Feeling sad, hopeless or empty
- Loss of interest in activities once considered enjoyable
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
- Fatigue or feeling slowed down
- Thoughts of death or suicide
The TEMPS-A is a self-report questionnaire designed to measure variations in temperament. Here are a few of its descriptors for cyclothymia:
- “My ability to think varies greatly from sharp to dull for no apparent reason.”
- “The way I see things is sometimes vivid, but at other times lifeless.”
- “I go back and forth between being outgoing and withdrawn from others.”
Studies have shown that cyclothymic individuals are more likely to pursue creative fields like architecture, the arts, or the humanities. They are less frequently drawn to STEM fields, however.
The hypomanic side of cyclothymia appears particularly relevant to creativity. In fact, one study demonstrated that hypomania was the best predictor of self-rated creativity. That said, milder forms of hypomania are typically more conducive to creative achievement, as more severe forms may impede perseverance and follow-through. Moreover, the link between hypomania and increased social activity may help explain correlations between extraversion and creativity.
Navigating Low Moods & Depressive Symptoms
Inspiration junkies may find it hard to resist the creative energy of hypomanic states. But what goes up must eventually come down. And the sharp descent from blissful highs to despondent lows is not always easy to weather.
One reason these drops are difficult is they seem to occur for no apparent reason. We might feel great one day—like our creative engine is running on all cylinders—only to wake up feeling down and uninspired the next. Not only that, but creative projects may suddenly lose their appeal, seeming less interesting or compelling than they did just a few hours earlier. This causes us to scratch our heads in bewilderment, wondering how or why this dramatic shift took place.
To compensate for the fickleness of the muses, creative types may try to perpetuate periods of inspiration for as long as possible. So instead of stopping their work at a reasonable hour and starting fresh the next day, they push through in hopes of utilizing every last drop of creative energy. And while this may work okay for smaller projects, trying to consistently pull creative all-nighters is a probable path to burnout.
Additionally, creatives may scrutinize themselves and their lives in search of clues for understanding (and mitigating) their low moods. They might ask themselves questions like: Do my moods really have a mind of their own, or are there ways I can control or influence them? Should I try to alter my negative moods, or should I simply ignore them and plow forward?
Empirical research has shown that there are in fact mood-enhancing behaviors such as getting regular exercise and a good night’s rest. And while these practices are certainly helpful, they can only take us so far. Rarely will they ameliorate concerns about creative inspiration.
A Different Take on Low Moods
I have no intention here of enumerating a comprehensive solution to this issue, but I do want to highlight one potentially helpful strategy. If it’s true that, as research suggests, creativity and cyclothymia are linked, then it may also be the case that intermittent low moods are part and parcel of being a creative personality. Viewed this way, low moods don’t constitute a disorder, but are inherent to a certain type of temperament.
Here’s another way of looking at it. We know that creativity is a process composed of different stages or seasons. There’s a time for incubation, a time for creative output, a time for critical evaluation and refinement, etc. Could it be that low moods correspond to a specific phase of the creative process (e.g., incubation)? Or, if you prefer to use a seasons metaphor, might they represent the winter of creativity?
The upshot of what I’m saying is this: If low moods are personality-related or a natural part of the creative process, then maybe they’re not enemy we think they are. To a certain extent, it may be better to work with them rather than resisting or resenting them. Perhaps creatives should experiment with accepting low moods (assuming they’re not severe or suicidal) and see where it leads them.
Acceptance of low moods doesn’t mean wallowing, self-loathing, or being a couch potato. Nor does it require complete abstinence from creative work. I’m thinking more along the lines of taking these moods in stride and being open to what they might teach us. Patience can certainly help with this, as can having fallback activities that are less reliant on inspiration.
Finally, I suspect that a life of nothing but euphoric highs would eventually start feeling mundane to creative types who thrive on novelty and variety. So experiencing the valleys of low moods may help us better recognize and appreciate creative peaks. From this perspective, it may not only be possible to accept our low moods, but even feel a measure of gratitude for them.
To learn more about living abundantly and effectively as a creative personality type, be sure to explore our online course, Finding Your Path as an INFP, INTP, ENFP or ENTP.
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If one lives and moves rhythmically through life, one recognizes fallow periods as gestational. Perhaps being female allows a closer and more accepting relationship to this tidal, waxing/waning cyclicity.
A.J. Drenth says
Beautifully put Gwyneth. Thanks for summarizing so nicely one of the key points of the post.
Dawn Upham says
Thank you for this post. As a person very involved in the church, I experience cyclothymia in a deeply spiritual way. When I am in a low period, I call it a “time in the desert.” Over the years, I have come to realize that these low periods are essential for spiritual growth. I don’t like going into the desert but no longer dread the feelings of emptiness and isolation. I know it will pass.
A.J. Drenth says
Thanks so much for your comment Dawn. I appreciate your “time in the desert” metaphor.
I have recently come to truly appreciate the rhythm of life.
Work hard and then rest hard.
In the same way, I feel that a bout of creativity should naturally conclude with a period of stillness.
Your seasons analogy strikes fairly accurately in my own experience.
I wonder if you are familiar with the Hermetic Principles (or the Laws of Nature)?
There is one that comes to mind. The Law of Rhythm that seems apt for this. Everything in Nature, us included, experience rhythm. Expansion and contraction.
The stock market is this way, day and night, tide goes up and down, humans are inspired and quiet.
The other law that is fitting is the Law of Correspondence. As above, so below. As below, so above.
So if everything else in Nature goes up and down, so too do humans. It makes sense. We are of the Earth too.
Curious what you think.
As someone who had undiagnosed cyclothymia for 40 years, I can assure you that it is a very real mood disorder. The depression of it is not just “low moods.” The hypo side is not a creative high. It’s just as out of control as the depression side.
I tried to control it on my own. I tried the Buddhist principle of detachment and just letting the moods flow through my life. I would watch other people actually function with stability and cry because I didn’t understand what was wrong with me. I would read articles like this and feel deeply ashamed.
Cyclothymia has up to a three month cycle. I would just start to get on track and my feet would be swept out from under me again. Living this cycle for decades destroyed any sense of self trust I had. I stopped trying because I knew I wouldn’t follow through. What was the point?
Mood stabilizers gave me my life back. A year later I added an antidepressant which relieved the chronic depression. Plus over a year and counting of EMDR, and I am starting to feel almost normal for the first time in my life.
The path of destruction left in my wake is finally starting to heal. Personal relationships are healing. And I am still just as creative. The biggest difference now is that my creativity actually bears fruit. And I am able to function.
I usually really appreciate your articles but you really missed the mark on this one. Mental health issues are very serious. Cyclothymia can be more destructive than bipolar because it can fly under the radar. I am disappointed that you minimized this very serious illness.
A.J. Drenth says
Thanks so much sharing your experiences with cyclothymia. It sounds like you had a more severe case which required professional intervention. Hopefully your story will encourage other readers with more pronounced or recurring symptoms to seek help. In this post, I was thinking in terms of milder symptoms which would fall toward the temperament rather than disorder side of the spectrum. Gwyneth’s earlier comment nicely summarized what I was trying to emphasize. In no way do I wish to discourage individuals who need professional help from seeking it. Thanks again for your comment.
Andrea Holliday says
I’ve been reading with interest for a couple of years, and this is the first time I’ve felt “inspired” to comment. This is one of your best pieces! Very helpful to me, as a creative-euphoria junkie… equally relevant to my sister, who suffers with severe Bipolar I. Keep up your wonderful work!
A.J. Drenth says
Thanks so much for your kind remarks and readership Andrea. I’m happy to hear you enjoyed the post.
The book “Touched with Fire: Maniac-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperment” by Kay Redfield Jamison talks about this connection extensively. Its older (1993) but a very fascinating read.
I discovered I can manage these tides by being deliberate with whom I share my ideas and/or creativity. In particular, I avoid most business people, psychotic sports fans, and people who feel like they are going to disappear if they stop talking. Nothing brings a creative surge down faster than these types for me. God bless them all, but these people make my highs thud to the floor begging for CPR much faster than just letting them ride it out on their own.