“Stress is the enemy of creativity. Our best work often comes from a state of nonchalance, when our minds are calm.” — Will Meier, “The Next Web”
People often think of creativity as being the source of art, music and films, but many people’s work requires them to generate new ideas. Trying to do creative work is a catch-22 because it should be something enjoyable and free flowing, but doing it for work can somehow steal the joy out of it. This article covers what creativity is, what’s going on in the creative brain and how to manage your stress so you can enjoy your creative work.
What Is Creativity?
Creativity is defined as the ability to come up with new and innovative ideas. It’s often associated with artistic endeavors, but can also apply to practical problems like developing businesses or resolving social issues. Whether the new idea is a narrative for a short story or a blueprint for engineering a new sustainable light, it requires that certain inner spark we know as creativity.
While explaining what creativity is may be straightforward, the process of coming up with new ideas is still mysterious. Scientists have only begun to unravel the secrets of the creative brain.
Creativity and the Brain
One study found that creative people tend to have higher levels of activity in their brain’s right hemisphere. Creativity has also been linked to increased levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that regulates pleasure and motivation. Moreover, looking at creativity from the standpoint of networks in the brain offers fascinating insight.
The brain has several functional networks: the salience network, the executive control network and the default mode network. The executive control network is responsible for focused attention, whereas the default mode network is active during mind wandering and daydreaming. These two networks are usually mutually exclusive, meaning they’re rarely both active at the same time.
The interesting thing about creativity is that these two networks cooperate. It’s the only time both networks are simultaneously active, and it manifests as a type of controlled mind-wandering that gives birth to new, creative ideas. While there’s still much to learn about creativity, these findings provide insight into what’s happening in our brain when we’re engaged in creative work.
Does Stress Affect Creativity?
When a stressful event occurs, cortisol levels in our body rise, causing a cascade of physiological, psychological and neurological changes. Our bodies heat up, often causing perspiration; our heartbeat increases, and we feel a sense of discomfort or being on edge. Just like creativity, activity (or lack thereof) in the executive control and default mode networks plays a role in stress. The executive control network becomes less active, and the default mode network becomes more active.
Because the process of creativity relies on a harmonious balance between these two networks, the changes that stress causes can put an end to our brain’s ability to be creative. This may be why doing creative work under time pressure can be counterproductive. The stress of the time pressure can actually take away from our brain’s ability to generate new, innovative ideas.
It’s been said that deadlines destroy creativity. If you’re under time pressure at work to do a creative task, this can lead to a vicious cycle of feeling stressed and inadequate. On the one hand, you want to please your boss by offering good work within your given deadline, but the time pressure itself is hindering you. Don’t let it get you down, and try to understand that it’s not that you’re inadequate in any way — biology is working against you in this case.
When Does Creativity Flourish?
Creativity is notoriously elusive, and people are always looking for that magic hack to ignite their creative spark. While there’s no magic trick to turn you into Pablo Picasso, there are some factors that can lead to enhanced creativity. They include:
- Being happy. Happy people are more likely to have creative breakthroughs. This makes sense when we consider how stress can hinder creativity. Happiness and relaxation can be a powerful antidote, combating stress and sparking creative light.
- Collaborating with others. Getting together with others to do creative tasks can be better than doing it alone. When working with someone else, you can bounce ideas off each other and build on them in turns.
- Detaching yourself from your ideas. People are often scared to be creative because they’re worried their ideas will be no good. By detaching yourself, you remove the self-critical part of you that stops ideas from flowing.
- Dimming the lights. Research indicates that low lighting is better for creativity than bright lighting. You can dim the lights and hack into the creative spaces of your mind.
It’s also a good idea to be well-rested when you need to be creative. As the saying goes, “When you’re tired, you’re uninspired.”
Can You Work Better Under Stress?
The answer to this isn’t black and white. While stress has a memory-enhancing effect and can increase memory retention when studying for important exams, it’s also found to reduce productivity. In short, stress may be helpful or harmful to your work, and it largely depends on what type of work you’re doing. If you’re studying and are under a little bit of “healthy” stress, you might perform better on an exam than if stress was totally absent.
However, prolonged or severe stress will always impair your ability to function, reducing the quality of your work. If you’re struggling with stress, make time to decompress and deal with it before it spirals out of control. If you feel like you need help, reach out for it.
Tips for Managing Stress During Creative Work
Doing creative work under the pressure of the clock isn’t easy — indeed, our very biology hardly permits it. However, sometimes your work might require you to do just that. Here are a few tips for reducing stress:
- Yoga and meditation. The practice of yoga has been shown to significantly reduce stress. Practicing for 30 minutes per day can significantly help, leaving you to focus on your creative project.
- Listen to relaxing music. Try listening to relaxing classical or instrumental music while you work. It might help you find your flow.
- Take regular breaks. Don’t overwork yourself. Allow yourself to take a five-minute break every 40-45 minutes.
- Reduce caffeine intake. Caffeine may increase cortisol levels, leading to higher stress. If you need to be creative, avoid coffee and strong tea.
- Take magnesium. Supplementing with magnesium has been shown to significantly reduce stress and muscular tension.
Creativity is often difficult enough to catch without the added factor of stress hindering our creative brain. And while a little bit of stress is normal, too much can have negative long-term effects. If you’re struggling to manage your stress, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Contact FHE Health by calling us today at (844) 299-0618.