How Stress is Eating Into Your Creativity and How to Beat It?

Have you noticed how your creativity takes a beating when you’re stressed out? Suddenly the ideas stop. The wonderful flow we were enjoying, pauses. Stress truly, is the enemy of creativity.

At this juncture of human history, creativity is an extremely valuable asset. The Future of Work requires us to work closely with technology, systems, and machines that can do heavy computing. The future is a world in which AI will produce outputs that humans are unable to do at high volume and speed. All of this needs high levels of innovation and creativity. However, our creativity levels are suffering with the rising levels of stress.

Abstract. Innovation. Hands holding tablet with light bulb future technologies and network connection on virtual interface background, innovative technology in science and communication concept
Abstract. Innovation. Hands holding tablet with light bulb future technologies and network connection on virtual interface background, innovative technology in science and communication concept

Several researches and studies have proven the adverse effects of stress on our brain. However, despite knowing the negative impacts of stress on our physical and mental health, we can’t eliminate it completely from our lives.

What we can do is learn to cope with stress in a healthy manner to prevent it from killing our creativity. And in this article we explore how.

The relation between stress and creativity

In a 2005 study, researchers used video clips to study the relationship between stress and creativity. They divided some people into two groups.

  • They showed the war film, Saving Private Ryan to the first group for the first 30 minutes.
  • The researchers showed Shrek, a lighthearted animation film to the second group for the first 30 minutes.
  • Then the researchers gave participants of both groups a word association task that required the ability to think creatively.
  • It was found that the group that had watched Shrek performed 39% better on the task than the group that had watched the more stressful war film, Saving Private Ryan.

Stress and creativity are inversely proportionate to each other: the higher the stress, the lower the creativity.

In the current digital age we have to work closely with technology, even if we don’t want it. While modern technology has improved our lives, it has also made us increasingly addicted and dependent on it. Then there is also the increasing addiction to social media.

Creativity is a phenomenon that involves our imagination. And it thrives best when we have lower levels of stress. When we feel stressed, it disturbs our mental capacity. When we’re overexposed to stress, our creativity reduces.

Young asian woman tailor designer failing and stressed from her business startup in workplace office. Stress impacts our creativity.
Young asian woman tailor designer failing and stressed from her business startup in workplace office. Stress impacts our creativity.

We all get creative blocks sometimes. When this happens, we feel that our ideas are not coming easily or as naturally. This mostly happens due to stress. Excessive stress blocks the creative part of our minds. It also prevents us from thinking outside the box.

When we feel stressed, our body uses the fight-freeze-or-flight response to escape from it. It elevates our heart rate and blood pressure and shuts down our digestive and other bodily functions. This takes up so much energy that are not able to think creatively.

How does stress affect our creativity?

Die with the letters STRESS and FREE/FUL being spelt. A hand is holding the FREE/FUL part to indicate that being stress-free or stressful is an option we have. Stress hampers creativity.
Die with the letters STRESS and FREE/FUL being spelt. A hand is holding the FREE/FUL part to indicate that being stress-free or stressful is an option we have. Stress hampers creativity.

The world today is characterized by VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity). This has led to a general increase in stress levels. And there’s no doubt that stress is a creativity killer.

Here are some ways stress can eat into our creativity:

Stress blocks freedom

Creativity needs freedom to flourish. One needs to feel light and free to allow the creative juices to flow. But stress overwhelms our minds with pressure and feelings of anxiety and worry. This automatically prevents our brain from wandering freely and thinking out-of-the-box.

Stress causes tunnel-vision that impacts creativity

We already know how stress induces the fight-freeze-or-flight response in our bodies. This actually makes us tunnel-visioned. That is, our brain automatically focuses only on the problem at hand. This reduces our ability to see things from multiple perspectives, which in turn lowers our ability to think creatively.

Photograph of a scene through a tunnel. The image indicates how one cannot see the entire picture through a tunnel indicating how stress impacts creativity by making us tunnel-visioned.
Photograph of a scene through a tunnel. The image indicates how one cannot see the entire picture through a tunnel indicating how stress impacts creativity by making us tunnel-visioned.

Stress impacts the structure of the brain

When we experience fear and stress over a long period of time, our brain plasticity reduces. Brain plasticity (or neuroplasticity) is a quality of the brain that makes it rewire or modify its connections on its own. When this ability reduces, our creative faculty may deteriorate in the long run.

Long-term stress can also lead to the PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) syndrome. When this happens, the size of the amygdala in the brain increases. The amygdala processes fear information. This syndrome also shrinks the size of the temporal lobe and of the hippocampus. The hippocampus is vital for creativity, long-term memory, and imagination. This again impacts our overall creativity adversely.

Posttraumatic stress disorder is a mental disorder. Humans brain with Regions of the brain associated with stress and PTSD.
Posttraumatic stress disorder is a mental disorder. Humans brain with Regions of the brain associated with stress and PTSD.

How to reduce stress and boost creativity

Training ourselves to cope with stress, building more resilient minds and better mental health are the best ways to retain our creativity. Overuse of media, disrupted lifestyles, poor sleep cycles all add to stress at a physiological and mental level.

According to a recent study, creative tasks can improve our well-being, enhance our imagination, and reduce stress and anxiety. But, how can we access our creativity when we’re experiencing stress?

Here are some ways through which we can try to reduce stress and boost our creativity.

Be creative

The best way to beat stress is to actually exercise our creativity and do something creative in nature.

For example, if someone is experiencing stress while writing, they should distract their mind with another creative activity. It can be painting, playing a musical instrument, solving puzzles, crafting, etc.

Spending time on a less-challenging creative task can relieve us from stress. This is a great hack to get the creative juices flowing again.

Image to indicate lateral thinking and creativity while a man's hands type on a keyboard and colour and drawings jump out of the screen.
Image to indicate lateral thinking and creativity while a man's hands type on a keyboard and colour and drawings jump out of the screen.

Do something positive

Just like stress depletes creativity, positive actions can enhance the brain’s creative potential. That’s why it’s crucial to invest our energies in things that make us happy.

It can be dancing, writing a journal, listening to music, spending time with friends, or travelling. Whatever makes us feel happy can increase our creativity.

In order to keep our creativity flowing, we could take some time out every day to spend on stress-relieving activities such as yoga, meditation, journaling, sports, colouring, and so on.

Spend time with close ones

Technology in the form of devices, apps, and social media have really invaded our lives. As per a 2017 study, young adults between 19–32 years who spend the most time on social media are three times more likely to feel socially isolated than people who don’t use social media regularly.

If we want to escape stress, we have to distance ourselves from technology and reconnect with nature and people.

A group of friends laughing together at the park. Stress in daily life can be reduced and creativity enhanced by spending time with our loved ones.
A group of friends laughing together at the park. Stress in daily life can be reduced and creativity enhanced by spending time with our loved ones.

Feeling connected with our near and dear ones and sharing our troubles with each other can give us a sense of relief and self-worth. It can help us cope with tough and stressful circumstances in life. At the same time, it can relax and energize us, and thus enable creativity to flow more easily.

Do something mechanical and boring

It may seem counter intuitive, but research proves strong links between boredom and creativity. When we do something mechanical, repetitive, or boring, it allows our mind to wander. This mind-wandering in turn, leads to creativity. So the next time you have a creative block, try doing some mundane task and allow your mind to space out. It could be washing the dishes, ironing clothes, or simply daydreaming. Then go back to the challenging task to see if the inspiration is back.

Wrapping up…

We can struggle with creativity if our brain is troubled with negative thoughts and anxiety. Even in this modern era of artificial intelligence and heavy computing, creativity is urgently needed to build new ideas and connections. Innovation is one of the most coveted skills of the coming few decades.

As humans we will have to use our minds to do things that machines cannot do; this is the next phase of our evolution.

So, if we want to avoid burnout and increase creativity in this technologically advanced world, we have to adopt a lifestyle where we can manage stress. We must try methods that help us reduce stress and lead a creative life full of imagination and innovation.

Finally, if you think your work demands creativity, which is blocked because of stress, ensure you reach out for professional help.

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