Panic, attention and creativity

Creativity is best achieved in the still waters of calm focus..Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Humans are creative creatures.  Getting together on a project, we can find solutions which are startlingly beautiful and elegant.  Even individually, our minds can come up, on limited resources, with work that not only does the job, but inspires awe.

Unfortunately, at times, this ability is masked by fearful intensity.  Instead of calmly working towards an inspiring end, we fall into panic and the fear of loss.  It is as though life were a walk across a mountain ridge.  The ridge doesn’t change.  Sometimes we are in flow, taking care but also enjoying the view; and sometimes we are in fear, feeling shaky and unable to appreciate the view.


Panic is a state in which our ability to focus is compromised.  Our attention is often divided between stimuli.  We are alert to danger, and therefore likely to interpret events in a negative way.  We are biased towards fight and flight, either hitting out in anger, or running away and hiding with fear.

  • Anger is a panic response, because it involves the compromise of our intelligence in favour of lashing out.  We often say things we regret when we are angry. Our judgement is impaired.
  • Fear is also a panic response, because it involves the compromise of our calm awareness in favour of running away.  We often lose the ability to engage when we are fearful.

Panic can involve acute fluctuation between anger and fear.  One minute we are feeling resentful, wanting to have an impact, however negative, on those we perceive as hurting us.  The next minute we are feeling fearful, wanting to retreat from engagement, finding the world just too painful.  This fluctuation can be experienced as confusing and exhausting.


If we are in panic, our intention should be to try to reduce the vulnerability caused by anger and fear.  We can do this by regaining calm focus.

  1. Initially, we may need to remove ourselves from any stimuli which are making anger and fear worse.  This can involve walking out of a room, taking a break, visiting a calm friend – whatever works to reduce the emotional temperature.
  2. Secondly, we need to get involved in a focused activity, in order to gather our attention in mindful engagement, rather than fight or flight.  This can be as simple as a walk, a group activity, or even a book or a film (preferably in company).  Therapy can also help.
  3. Thirdly, through that focused activity, we need to regain a sense of personal safety and agency, and begin to act independently of any anger, fear or panic.  Our attention will slowly return to calm focus.

In terms of our bodily reaction, the journey from panic to calm involves hormones. 

  • In panic, we are influenced by cortisol and adrenaline (both are fight and flight hormones).  (See this link.)
  • In happiness, we are supported by dopamine (reward), serotonin (calm benevolence), oxytocin (bonding), and endorphins (pain relief).  (See this link.)

In panic, we still have attention.  But that attention is often wayward and split.  And it is often too narrowly focused on our particular obsessions and narrow perspectives.  In happiness, our range of attention is wider and more integrated.


Creativity is the act of putting things into new form.  When we are creative, we can manage and manipulate the patterns of our everyday life.  New conformations appear which we have not thought of before.  New types of buildings get built.  New types of relationships get developed.  New literature gets written.  New art comes into being.  Life becomes more meaningful and interesting.

When we are in panic, we are destructive.  We reach out for the nearest weapon in order to defend ourselves.  in the panic of war, for instance, buildings get destroyed, not built.  Relationships disintegrate rather than develop.  Literature becomes single-minded and biased.  Art is censored, stolen, neglected and destroyed.

If we have found ourselves in panic, but managed to regain our attention through focused activity, then as a next stage we can begin to release our creativity.  This has to be done carefully, to make sure we don’t fall back into imbalance and instability.  To maintain our mental health, it is wise to try periods of creativity first, in among plenty of easier, focused activity.

Many life changes are made during periods of high creativity, when we release ourselves for constructive change.  We let our old ways fall away, and embrace new, improved ways of doing things.


How do we move from panic to creativity, from destructiveness to a new life?

  1. We remove ourselves from any stimuli that are influencing our panic.  We take a break, and retreat into calmness.
  2. We engage in calm, focused activity for a while, to regain our equilibrium, and allow our hormones to rebalance.
  3. We allow ourselves to get used to calm, focused activity.
  4. Retaining our focused activity, we begin to build in some periods of creativity.

If we try to fight our panic on its own terms, we end up even more angry and disorientated.  We need to replace the panic with calm focus first.  Then, and only then, will we be stable enough to get creative in short bursts.

What kinds of focused activity work best as a transition?  They should be activities which are easy to engage in, and involve a single task (not multitasking).  Examples include:

  • Reading
  • Exercise
  • Meditation
  • Conversation

In order to engage our happy hormones, we should try to do these things in company, or at least with other people around us (e.g. in a public space, a community space such as a cafe, a friend’s house, or a benevolent educational institution).

Once we have transitioned to calm focus, we will be in a good position to develop new ideas and habits.

The main point is, we shouldn’t try to rush from panic to creativity.  We are wise to get to calm focus first, and then, once we are balanced, build in some creative activity.  Life will be more stable and healthy that way.