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Anxiety and John Prine

Updated: Apr 17, 2023

Anxiety can become crippling. It can overwhelm us with worry and dread, leaving us little recourse against the threats we perceive all around us. Mental energy is required to manage our emotions, but Anxiety often leaves us very little energy to work with. It burns through our mental capacity before we know it. It may even override our executive function like a computer virus overrides the machine's processor. We’re left with a burning, and an insatiable inclination to worry.


If you struggle with anxiety, it likely isn’t your fault. Your environment and the things you have experienced have all helped create it. These are things that happened to you rather than choices you made. Anxiety often comes from traumatic experiences you’ve had where you felt the need to predict the future or control things to protect yourself. It can also be hereditary. Roughly one third of participants in anxiety studies have been able to trace their condition back to a parent. Other studies found this number to be as high as 50%!


As a music fan, I must acknowledge that music across all genres probably wouldn’t be as good if it weren’t for anxiety. We hear angsty, simmering anxiety in 90’s grunge hits by Nirvana and Pearl Jam like “Come As You Are” and “Jeremy". We hear Taylor Swift wrestle with it in “Mean” and “You Belong With Me” and many of her other pieces. We hear it when rappers posture themselves as untouchable in a futile attempt to insulate themselves from danger. We hear it in B.B. King’s “Why I sing The Blues”. We even heard The Beatles face it with songs like “Revolution” and “Help”. It’s everywhere.


One of my favorite songwriters is the late John Prine [pictured] . Prine was…well, he had a way with words. He’ll probably remind you of your grandpa. He looks all sweet and warm and then - *Wham!* - he hits you out of nowhere with lyrics that make you do a double-take. “Wait, did he just SAY that? Wha…? Oh wow, that’s deep!” Here’s one he wrote about experiencing anxiety: “There's flies in the kitchen,

I can hear 'em buzzin'

And I ain't done nothin'

Since I woke up today.

How the $%^& can a person

Go to work in the morning

And come home in the evening

And have nothing to say? Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery Make me a poster of an old rodeo.

Just give me one thing that I can hold on to To believe in this living is just a hard way to go." -John Prine, “Angel From Montgomery", (made famous by Bonnie Raitt)

Here’s another one:

“I leaned on my left leg in the parking lot dirt

And Cathy was closing the lights

A june-bug flew from the warmth it once knew

And I wished for once I weren’t right.

We used to laugh together, And we’d dance to any old song

Now she still laughs with me, but she waits just a second too long.”

-John Prine, “Far From Me”


The man was a genius. Hands down. A genius. He responded to anxiety with a rather open-handed approach, but he included in his lyrics the internal struggle of maintaining such an open mindset. He really wrestled with his tensions and expressed them as artfully as anyone I’ve ever heard. Think about that - he turned them into ART!




Here’s the challenge: What if you turned your anxieties into Art?? Stay with me, because this one of the most effective anxiety management strategies I’ve ever learned. TS Elliott established the theory of the “objective correlative”. Us therapists use this theory to explore the creative mind. In short, we believe that when an artist creates a piece of art that taps into an inner conflict or distress, then they can actually better understand that conflict afterward. They can examine that sculpture or painting or journal entry or song at arms length and better understand their inner conflict through it.


So go create! Explore some of the depths of your psyche and wrestle with some of those conflicts. Chances are you’ll better understand the causes of your anxieties after making them into something beautiful. [See Disclaimer below]


Here’s another idea: When I worked with children exclusively, my team and I often saw children who suffered from nightmares. We’d encourage and coax them to draw the monsters or scary images they saw in their dreams in our sessions. Then we’d ask them to make that same image look foolish - to put gigantic sunglasses on the Shadow Man or to give the Boogey Man an oversized handlebar mustache. It worked every time! No more nightmares! Creating art out of our anxieties challenges us to overcome them by recognizing that they come from inside our own brains and therefore belongs to us. They are OURS to change as needed.



If you'd like to talk more about this, then I'd encourage you to schedule an appointment with me. If you'd like, you can even bring in a piece of art to discuss with me, like lots of people do! Click this link to see my website: www.altmancounseling.com or call 770 615 6300. I look forward to meeting with you.


Disclaimer: If you experience strong emotional swings or an unsafe level of agitation before, during or after creating, stop and seek professional help immediately. 9-8-8 or 9-1-1 are great resources for immediate assistance.

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