Are mood disorders the price we pay for our creative gifts?

Zita Fontaine
Aug 13 · 11 min read
Photo by Rene Böhmer on Unsplash

We of the craft are all crazy.—Lord Byron

I’ve worked with creative people all my life. Not just creative in the way we all are, but people who are also artistic. Working at an advertising agency has its definite perks, but the most rewarding is to be surrounded by designers, art directors, and copywriters. Grownup people who make a living off their creativity, who are paid for being a little crazy, who are rewarded for thinking outside the box. I knew they were a little different. A little erratic. Sometimes too loud and obnoxiously cheerful, other times wrapped up in their lingering sadness, sometimes irritated to the point of yelling in the corridors. They were allowed to. They created things.

I was envious, wanting to be one of them and, at the same time, glad I wasn’t. Who wants to handle this roller coaster of mood swings all the time?

Then I started to write and to treat it as more than a hobby, but as part of my life. I’ve been thinking about the mental wellbeing of my creative friends and my new writer friends lately.

Writing, I had to realise, is far from being only about the actual creative process. It’s about the flow state when all goes perfectly, about imposter syndrome and the idea drought when it all looks desperate, about having ideas, and not having any, and about having one good idea, then 99 shitty ones. It’s the tedious brainstorming to get out of a hole. It’s the reactions of our audience, the journeys of muses and writer crushes … and most importantly, it’s about mood swings related to the creative process.

Since I started to write and publish, I noticed a cycle of my highs and lows, through the string of my articles. It’s easy to see when I was down and depressed, when I had a few terrible run-ins with my imposter syndrome, when I was suffering from anxiety, and also when I was high on words, working obsessed, without a break, without sleep, without eating.

There is a noticeable pattern.

It might have always been there, but now that I’m documenting this meticulously, it’s hard to miss the alternation of ups and downs of my mood.

And it’s imperative to deal with our mental wellbeing when pursuing a creative passion, whether as a hobby, vocation, or job. It’s crucial to notice whether the mood swings are just usual parts of our daily routines—we have every right to get happy or sad about things, as regular human beings would—or a bit deeper.

There is a link between intelligence and creativity and mood disorders.


Scientists have studied the correlation between creativity and mental illness for centuries. Connecting creativity to major mental disorders, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, and ADHD is not at all new. The first mention dates back to the time of Aristotle, who linked the concept of madness and genius together, stating that individuals with mental illness can see the world in a different and original way; in other words, they see things that others cannot.

“Creativity is intelligence having fun.”—Albert Einstein

According to one study, “intelligence, creativity and bipolar disorder may share underlying genetics.” It claims that high childhood IQ can be linked to an increased risk of manifesting manic bipolar traits later in life.

Researchers examined data of eight-years-olds, comparing them to observed manic traits at the ages of 22 or 23. Those who showed the most manic features in adulthood had significantly higher IQs at the age of eight, with an even stronger correlation among those who had high verbal IQs.

One possible explanation is that serious mood disorders—such as bipolar disorder—are the price humans have had to pay for more adaptive traits such as intelligence, creativity, and verbal proficiency.

“Often, when people are creating something new, they end up straddling between sanity and insanity. I think these results support the old concept of the mad genius. Creativity is a quality that has given us Mozart, Bach, Van Gogh. It’s a quality that is very important for our society. But it comes at a risk to the individual, and 1% of the population pays the price for it.”—Kari Stefansson, founder and CEO of deCODE, a genetics company based in Reykjavik.

There is a strong link between creativity and mood disorders, especially unipolar depression and bipolar disorder. Research doesn’t suggest that all creative people have mental illnesses; rather, it shows that having a mood disorder makes you more prone to creativity. People suffering from mood disorders will also feel more comfortable in more liberal fields, such as art and creativity. Therefore, their number will be disproportionately high among creative professions.

To be creative, you have to think differently, and when we are different, we have a tendency to be labelled strange, crazy and even insane. — Kari Stefansson

Researching creativity related to mental illness poses some further problems.

  1. It is very difficult to define creativity statistically. One study used the definition from Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the father of the Flow theory: creativity means making original contributions and being recognised for them by peers.
  2. It is difficult to define mental illness and the affinity to undiagnosed and untreated manic traits. Using a well-established standard, such as the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), is one possibility, but it excludes significant traits that are present but don’t meet the textbook criteria. Another possibility is to conduct diagnosis interviews, where the evaluation is unified for all participants. The above research used structured interviews based on the criteria set in the DSM and used a comparison group to validate the results.

They concluded that the rates of mood disorders are extremely high among writers. An outstanding 80% showed the traits, and 30% had either bipolar I or bipolar II disorder.

80% [of writers] had some type of mood disorder—Nancy C. Andreasen, MD, PhD

In her book, “Touched with Fire,” American clinical psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison wrote that 38% of writers and poets had been treated for a type of mood disorder, and virtually all creative writers and artists (89%) had experienced “intense, highly productive, and creative episodes.” These were characterised by “pronounced increases in enthusiasm, energy, self-confidence, speed of mental association, fluency of thought and elevated mood.”

A mood disorder is a mental health class that health professionals use to broadly describe all types of depression and bipolar disorders. Mood disorders, similarly to other mental illnesses, can be found on a broad spectrum, depending on the severity of the symptoms.

Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash

Bipolar Disorder

The bipolar spectrum refers to conditions that include not only bipolar disorder but also other mental conditions such as depression or mood swings without manic or hypomanic episodes, as well as some impulse control disorders, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, and forms of substance abuse.

The four main forms of bipolar disorder

1. In bipolar I disorder, a person has at least one manic episode lasting at least a week with multiple episodes of major depression. The ratio of time with depressive symptoms to time with mania symptoms is about three to one.

2. In bipolar II disorder, a person has a milder form of mania, called hypomania, lasting several days or longer. Periods of depression might outnumber the time with symptoms of hypomania by almost 40 to 1 in many people. Because hypomania can be mistaken for ordinary happiness or even normal functioning, bipolar II may often be misdiagnosed as unipolar depression.

3. In bipolar disorder not otherwise specified, people have symptoms of mania or hypomania that are too few or too brief to meet currently accepted definitions of a manic or hypomanic syndrome or episode.

4. In cyclothymic disorder, a person has hypomanias that alternate frequently with brief periods of depression. The symptoms of depression do not last long enough or involve enough symptoms to define major depression as a full syndrome.

While bipolar I and bipolar II are usually diagnosed due to the very severe depressive periods, the not otherwise specified bipolar disorder and cyclothymia might fly under the radar, because the highs are considered ordinary happiness and as very high functioning, even productive periods, and the lows are chalked up to everyday difficulties.

Having a mental illness doesn’t make you a genius.—Hannah Jane Parkinson

Having a mental illness doesn’t make you a genius, but being creative, with its ups and downs, might come from the same place as a mild mood disorder.

We are all advised against self-diagnosing, and I agree with that. But who would know our symptoms better than ourselves? My recent writing roller coaster ride was nothing if not epic and thrilling and mind-blowing at every turn, up and down too.

I tend to believe that, like some fellow creatives, I am suffering from (or enjoying) the kiddie roller coaster of cyclothymia.


Cyclothymia

The main difference between cyclothymia and bipolar disorder is their intensity. Mood swings in cyclothymia are not as extreme as those that come with bipolar disorder. Those with bipolar disorder experience intense symptoms that meet clinical criteria for the diagnoses of mania and major depression, while those with cyclothymia experience milder ups and downs, described as hypomania and mild depression. These mood changes tend to occur in cycles. The catch here is that in between these highs and lows, one may feel like one’s mood is stable.

People with cyclothymia usually experience many weeks of low-level depression followed by an episode of mild mania that lasts several days.

Depressive symptoms of cyclothymia may include irritability, aggressiveness, insomnia or hypersomnia, changes in appetite, weight loss or gain, fatigue or low energy, low sexual desire and function, feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, or guilt, inattentiveness, lack of concentration, forgetfulness, or unexplained physical symptoms.

The manic symptoms of cyclothymia may include extremely high self-esteem, excessive talking or speaking very quickly, sometimes so fast others have trouble following along, racing thoughts, lack of focus, restlessness and hyperactivity, increased anxiety, going for days with little or no sleep (without feeling tired), hypersexuality, or reckless or impulsive behaviour.

Some might experience mixed periods, in which a combination of both manic and depressed symptoms occurs within a very short time, one followed immediately by the other.

“Many people hear voices when no one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stare at the walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing.”―Margaret Chittenden

From all these, I experience a disturbing mixture of changed sleeping and eating habits, low self-esteem alternating with extremely high self-esteem, anxiety and guilt, recklessness and fatigue.

Writer’s high and imposter syndrome

These are common topics within the writers’ community. In a writer’s high, you enter a hyped flow state, working at full speed with such an incredible level of productivity that it amazes both you and your peers. No sleep needed, no day is long enough, no amount of projects can satisfy your creative appetite. In other words, this might be the description of a hypomanic episode, the high of the cyclothymic cycle.

This is inevitably coupled with recurring imposter syndrome and writer’s block, when you feel stuck, out of ideas, down and depressed; when you are questioning your abilities, the quality of your work; when the world seems to be against you and nothing goes right. This can be the mild depression cycle of the same.


Causes

The causes behind any type of bipolar disorder can be either genetic or biological, the latter being due to a chemical imbalance in the brain, hormonal problems, or environmental factors, such as abuse, stress or trauma.


There Is No Cure, Only Treatment

Bipolar disorder in any form—to this day—is a condition without a cure. It is treatable, and its mild forms can be solved by self-managing it. Treatment will usually consist of therapy sessions and possibly medication. It also requires a conscious lifestyle attitude.


Therapy Types

Cognitive behavioural therapy focuses on identifying negative or unhealthy beliefs and behaviours and replacing them with positive or healthy ones. It may also help you manage stress and develop coping techniques.

Well-being therapy focuses on improving the overall quality of life rather than fixing specific psychological symptoms. A combination of cognitive behavioural therapy and well-being therapy brings significant improvements to the lives of patients with cyclothymia.


Medication

The main types of medications for cyclothymia include:

  • mood stabilizers
  • anti-seizure medications
  • atypical antipsychotic medications
  • anti-anxiety medications
  • antidepressants (in some cases)

Lifestyle Changes

As with all other mental illnesses, maintaining a healthy balanced lifestyle can significantly decrease the amplitude of highs and lows.

1. Get enough sleep

Even if you don’t feel tired, sleep is necessary to give the brain its much-needed break to process everything and rest. While depressive periods can cause hypersomnia (sleeping too much), this kind of sleep is not the relaxing kind. On the other hand, insomnia and lack of proper sleep will exhaust the brain to the point of breakdown. Meditation, limiting screen time, and natural sleep aids, such as melatonin, chamomile, and lavender will help get the well-deserved good night’s sleep.

2. Maintain a healthy diet

Eating healthy and having a balanced diet is necessary without any mental condition too, but an overworked brain with alternating and therefore taxing highs and lows will make it even more important. A healthy diet should limit the amount of processed food, including enough nutrients and limiting empty calories, with a very limited amount of stimulants like caffeine and limited or no alcohol.

3. Exercise

Exercise is good for the body, the mind, and the brain. It is proven to improve your overall health and sleep cycle and provides you with the necessary feel-good hormones. It reduces stress and anxiety. And it improves your mood and self-esteem at once, by confirming your ability to accomplish. As an added plus, it helps cognitive and learning abilities and improves memory.

4. Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is an overused word these days, but there is a good reason for that, as it keeps you in the present. It helps fight off anxiety, which is fixated on a not-so-shiny future, and it helps you find the balance and anchor that you need for both depressive and hypomanic episodes.

5. Practice moderation

Moderation sounds very reasonable, but it’s easier said than done when your brain is pushing you towards extremes: extreme apathy or extreme joy, extreme self-esteem or extreme self-loathing. The two far ends might involve extremes in eating, drinking, moving, feeling. With mindfulness, moderation is attainable, even if not easy.

6. Eat your vitamins

Sometimes maintaining a healthy diet will still mean that you’re not getting enough nutrients, which are crucial for healthy brain functioning. It should be primarily in the form of plants and greens, but if that doesn’t work, focus on Vitamin C, Vitamin D, and folic acid, all of which are very helpful to keep the brain on a healthy track.


Maybe it’s true; our mood disorders are the price we have to pay for our intelligence, for being creative, for being able to write, draw, paint, and design. We pay this price to create worlds out of thin air, weaving words and colours and pictures together, telling stories, amazing others.

In some cases, the price might be too high. But the stories … they are worth it.


Sources: here, here, here and here.

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Zita Fontaine

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Writer. Dreamer. In love with words. Becoming the best version of myself one word at a time. I write about love and life and laughs and sadness.

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