Stress Sapping Your Creativity? Break the Cycle …
Have you ever wondered why you get your best ideas in the shower or when you’re out for a walk, but when you have paper and pen (or their digital counterparts) in front of you, it’s crickets?
The truth is, creativity peaks when we’re most relaxed, and shrivels into nothing when we’re stressed.
Thanks to science, we even know why that happens and what you can do to minimize or prevent stress from taking a creative toll.
Stress Used to Be Beneficial
Stress fulfilled a necessary survival function for our many-times-great grandparents. When that tiger suddenly appeared, before grandpa even registered its presence in his thinking brain, his body started working.
His amygdala and hypothalamus flooded his body with adrenaline. That set off a cascade of hormones, culminating in what we all know as the fight-or-flight response. Once he’d outrun or out-fought the tiger, his hormone levels reverted to normal.
That’s the beneficial side of stress — it helps you survive a tiger encounter.
But, your ancestors didn’t live with the kinds of stressors we do today.
Most Stress Today Is Chronic
Today, most of us don’t have a lot of experience with the survival type of stress.
Instead, we experience the chronic, never-ending stress caused by a constant barrage of light and sound, anxiety-producing relationships, frustration from driving in traffic, worry about the many things we can’t control (hello, pandemic!), and on and on.
This kind of chronic stress wreaks havoc on your body and your mind.
Unlike survival stress, ongoing stress triggers a different set of hormones, culminating in the excessive release of cortisol. That’s the hormone that keeps your body on high alert.
High cortisol levels for a short period of time can help you ace a difficult exam. However, when your body is constantly flooded with cortisol, it can lead to insomnia (high alert, remember), depression, anxiety, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, weight gain, and more.
And, here’s where it gets really interesting …
The parts of your brain most affected by high cortisol levels are the hippocampus, the prefrontal cortex, and the amygdala. Your hippocampus is responsible for learning and memory. Your prefrontal cortex is in charge of focusing your attention, future planning, and impulse control. And, the amygdala regulates your emotions, especially fear. None of these work as well as they could when they’re soaking in cortisol.
So, when you’re chronically stressed, you become forgetful, you can’t focus or plan, and you’re more scared of more things, more of the time. (You can learn more about chronic stress in This Is Your Brain on Stress from Psychology Today.)
Not a great scenario for doing your best creative work.
I first became aware of the effects of chronic stress on my own creativity after the financial meltdown of 2009.
I had lost my “good” job, and 200 job applications later it became obvious I wasn’t going to replace it. At the same time, my husband had just received his Master’s degree with the idea he would change careers and go into teaching. Unfortunately, our local area laid off more than 3,000 full-time teachers at that exact time.
He ended up riding his bicycle as a courier in downtown Orlando, and I decided to go back to freelance writing, something I had done successfully in the past.
Needless to say, his courier work didn’t come close to replacing my lost income, and our finances were in shambles.
I still had it together enough to complete an assignment once I had one, but the creativity required to seek out clients and pitch projects was more than I could manage.
It took a dramatic shift in our circumstances — a move to the Republic of Panama and getting rid of all that financial pressure — for me to get my creative mojo back. After about four months of living in the little town of Las Tablas, meeting new people, learning Spanish, and generally de-stressing, I started coming up with ideas again.
What Is Creativity Anyway?
We all have different answers to that question.
Creativity helped Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel … it inspired Jane Austen to write Pride and Prejudice … it’s what produces great sculpture, and music, and poetry.
All true, but creativity doesn’t involve just the arts.
Connecting the Dots: Your Brain and Creativity, was written for young people, so it’s an easier read than what you find in most scientific journals. It defines creativity as something that can be measured and studied:
“While there are many components of creativity, including originality, pleasure, value, process, and imagination, the definition that scientists use to study creativity puts those components together to say that creativity is an ability to produce something that is both novel (or original) and has utility (is valuable to someone). This definition allows scientists to develop testable hypotheses about how creativity arises from the human brain.”
Using this definition, designing a marketing plan is a creative effort. So is pitching a writing project idea.
With our ability today to map brain activity, scientists know that when you’re creating, your frontal cortex stays busy. So do the hippocampus, white matter, and basal ganglia.
Along with the amygdala, these are the areas most adversely affected by chronic stress. That’s why your brain turns to mush when you’re stressing yourself out over trying to be creative.
If You Want to Keep Those Ideas Coming, Reduce Your Stress
Fortunately, there are things you can do today to minimize the effects of chronic stress on your body and brain so you can do your best creative work.
Your brain is part of your body, so to make sure it’s in top working order, you need to take good care of your physical self. All the relaxation techniques in the world won’t do much for you if your body isn’t in balance to start with.
Clean up your diet
Yes, I know, that bag of chips you inhaled last night or that ice cream you couldn’t resist were examples of stress eating. (Remember that whole impulse control thing that’s adversely affected by cortisol?)
There’s nothing wrong with an occasional splurge, but your healthy diet should be plant-based and without processed foods. If there are foods that are inflammatory to you or cause your body irritation, like wheat or dairy, get rid of them. Reduce or eliminate the use of alcohol and stimulants.
Exercise most days
Outdoors is best, and getting out into nature is even better.
Do whatever you need to get a good night’s sleep
Go to bed and get up at the same time every day and figure out what works for you. It helps if you know your sleep chronotype (I’m a wolf) and use that as a starting point.
Avoid screens — your phone, tablet, computer, and TV — for at least an hour before bedtime.
Limit coffee and other sources of caffeine to much earlier in your day.
Exercise helps you sleep better.
Control the noise
Noise is a bigger stressor than most of us realize. Especially if you live in an urban environment, you think you’re accustomed to the honking horns, blaring sirens, the rumble of heavy equipment, and the noise that a lot of people together make, but that doesn’t mean it’s not stressful.
You may not be able to control the noise around you, but there’s an easy way to take charge of how much of it enters your ears and affects your brain. Get yourself a good set of noise-canceling headphones and use them! Use earplugs at night, or plug in a white-noise machine on your bedside table.
According to the American Psychological Association, finances are the leading cause of stress in the USA. That’s the stress that killed my creativity back in 2009.
Reducing the other stressors in your life and improving your overall health will give you more energy to think creatively about your finances. Sit down and go over your average income and your average expenditures. How do they match up? Can you trim expenses to make the picture a little rosier?
Think through your long-term goals and make a list of small steps you can start taking now to make progress toward them.
Talk to your spouse (if that applies to you) and try to get on the same page about your spending habits.
If you’re not worried about making your bills and you can see yourself building a healthy financial future, that will ease your mind on this front.
Find ways to leave work at work.
That’s harder to do when you work from home — and especially during this past year when so many of us have suddenly had partners also working from home and children studying from home.
Even though “work” may be 10 feet away from your bed, do what you can to establish boundaries and rituals so you can leave work at the end of the day. For me, it’s as simple as booting down my laptop, closing it, and walking away.
#4. Relationships and parenting
Whatever your relationship or parenting situation, if this is a struggle for you, begin researching the resources available to help you improve it and make it less stressful.
A simple first step might be to make a regular lunch date with a friend who is willing to lend a sympathetic ear to your struggles.
There’s been a trend in the U.S. to wear busyness as a badge of honor. Along with bragging about how little sleep you get, it’s one of the habits you’ll have to change if you’re serious about reducing the stress in your life.
Again, there’s tons of information available to help you accomplish this, including resources on Wealthy Web Writer.
How is it that individuals can respond to the same event completely differently?
Where one student sees a complex math problem as an exciting challenge and tackles it with enthusiasm (no stress), another thinks “it’s too hard” and gives up without even trying (stress).
(If you haven’t read Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, put it on your reading list.)
The way you view an event or a situation will make it more or less stressful, so figure out why certain things stress you out, and see whether you can reframe them so they don’t.
Manage the Residual Stress
I’ve saved these tactics for last, because they don’t eliminate sources of stress, but they do help you manage it.
If you don’t already have a daily journal habit, you’ll be surprised at how much better you feel after venting in writing about your frustrations, annoyances, and bothers. For stress management, spend a few minutes every day spewing what’s bugging you onto the page.
The benefits of meditation to aid in stress reduction and relaxation are well documented. There are many different forms of meditation, but here’s a basic one to start with.
EFT (emotional freedom technique) is a system that uses the body’s acupressure points. It’s been successfully used to treat anxiety and PTSD in returning war veterans, and studies have shown it to reduce cortisol “significantly.”
Progressive muscle relaxation
This process targets tense muscles and helps them relax.
Used properly, guided imagery is a relaxation technique that will help flush stress from your body.
Entrainment uses audio to redirect brain wave patterns.
Some studies claim it provides all the physical and mental benefits of deep Zen meditation. You’ll find another (rather skeptical) look at it here.
I started using it back in 2009 or 2010, after the aforementioned job loss, and after months of debilitating insomnia I fell into the deepest, most profound sleep of my life while listening to it. Regular listening makes me calmer and more relaxed, less inclined to be thrown off stride by unexpected events, and helps me sleep.
Have some fun!
When we’re chronically stressed, it’s hard to remember what fun feels like. As you reduce and manage your stress, think back to what you once enjoyed, and put some fun back into your life.
Just don’t stress about it!
As your cortisol levels go down and your stress levels improve, you’ll start feeling those creative juices flowing again. Find a way to write down your ideas, either in a small notebook you carry with you, or on a digital notepad on your phone, tablet, or computer.
Then you’ll be able to face that blank page with excitement instead of dread, and your writing business will be easier and a whole lot more successful.
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