Stepping back from creativity to move forward with it

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.

Why it’s OK to rest

Creativity works incredibly when you let your mind do it naturally.

Creativity is – by default – the natural ability of our mind to connect ideas or experiences. When you suddenly feel a moment of “eureka!” or as if the solution to a problem was unexpectedly thrown into your thoughts, that’s your brain working creatively.

Sometimes, though, we’re so focused on a problem that we aren’t giving our brains enough energy for them to connect ideas and find solutions naturally.

Sometimes we feel like we have to force creativity, like we have to make ourselves find a solution to a problem, but that’s the worst thing you can do half the time. Your brain needs energy to think, and we only have so much thinking capacity available to us, so when we force our attention onto a problem, when we force ourselves to focus too hard on a specific thing, we’re disabling our ability to truly be creative.

Only try focusing on your problem for just a few brief minutes, then take a break and relax. Let your subconscious connect the possibilities and come up with a solution for you.

This process explains why so many insights come to us when we’re in the shower, or doing dishes, or free writing, or sketching, or taking a nap. It’s okay to relax. In‒fact: make yourself relax. Go take a nap, or go for a walk, or take a shower, or just take the rest of the day off and come back to the problem tomorrow.

You might be surprised.