Stress hinders creativity by using available brain energy for non-creative tasks, like worrying or uncontrollably eating a pint of ice cream.
Because it signals to the brain that there’s danger nearby, stress restricts our focus by releasing tense-inducing biochemicals and reverting processes from one are to another (think: fight or flight, not fight and flight).
Focused on the things causing us stress, we lose our ability to produce creative output. Occasionally the stress can provide a much-needed break from the work, but more often than not stress makes it hard to be creative.
An article in The New York Times explains what happens in the brains of rats who fall victim to stress, and how it damages their ability to problem solve:
On the one hand, regions of the brain associated with executive decision-making and goal-directed behaviors had shriveled, while, conversely, brain sectors linked to habit formation had bloomed…Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist who studies stress at Stanford University School of Medicine, said, ‘This is a great model for understanding why we end up in a rut, and then dig ourselves deeper and deeper into that rut.’
Scientific studies on humans have also confirmed this, stress kills creativity.
Unfortunately studies have also shown that common stress-relieving techniques (like meditation, imagining positive scenarios, or yoga) don’t boost creativity.
To get back in a creative state then requires a more controlled approach: we have to limit, reduce, and remove stress from our lives.
The best way to break away from stress? According to research: take a break.
A prolonged vacation – either physical or simply away from a project – can be the much-needed boost our brains need to stretch themselves back into a more flexible, open, and ultimately creative mind.
For creative individuals, it’s vitally important that we learn when to take a break and when not to; finding the balance in our thinking.
Not stepping away from the work can ultimately hurt us more than pausing and coming back to our craft later.
Photo by R. Nial Bradshaw.