4 Ways to Spark Creativity When You’re Feeling Stressed

Many people have felt more tired and less creative lately due to the constant stress caused by the pandemic. Understanding how our brain works when we are under threat or facing potentially terrifying challenges makes it easier to devise strategies to support creativity. Four science-backed steps are provided by the authors to help you transform disruption stress into fuel for creativity. They will reduce your evolutionary fear reflexes while nourishing and revitalizing creative brain circuits. These ideas can be used whenever your creative juices need a boost. However, they are especially useful during times of disruption and rapid change.
The Covid-19 pandemic caused massive disruption in society. It has resulted in the loss of life, job security, stability, and peace-of-mind as we know it. This is the first time that all people on the planet have experienced the same stressful, unplanned transition in over a century. Despite the uncertainty of such a large scale, we can all rely on one thing: The human brain has powerful protection mechanisms.

It is important to understand how stress affects the brain in order to maximize its inherent power. The brain attempts to understand the incoming stimuli, and formulate a plan of attack if it is not clear. The brain's natural response to precarious situations is to hide and not explore when anxiety and fear are combined. Survival ends up being more important than creativity. The stress hormones that prepare us for battle also disrupt the creative networks.

One reason we feel tired and uninspired is because of the cognitive load of subconscious scanning and scenario-building. Many people are currently living in a fight-or flight mode. This is why it is important. Understanding how our brain works when we are under threat or facing frightening challenges can help us to develop strategies that will alleviate those fears and support creativity. These four strategies use this knowledge of brain functionality to feed and nourish your creative instincts.

Control Reassess

Uncertainty and ambiguity can lead to feelings of loss of control. Uncertainty can lead to feelings of being lost and make it difficult to plan or make decisions. In these circumstances, the brain's emotional amygdala circuits can become more active. Instead of taking proactive and thoughtful actions through prefrontal cortex (PFC), fear may guide you. Fear is the enemy to creative thinking as it directs neural resources towards neutralizing perceived threats.

It can be helpful to plan your own disruptions, which can reduce uncertainty. It was scary when the disruptors came, but it is now easier to feel a sense of agency, and a strong connection to a purpose. Jonathan Fields, host and co-host of the Good Life Project podcast, said that although we don't know the outcome or whether we will be able achieve our goals, we have chosen the path, and are heading towards our destination. Fields says that this can help you feel more in control, be more relaxed, and have a better understanding of your surroundings. Because you are focusing on your ultimate destination, your PFC (the seat of planning and control) is activated. This helps to regulate your thoughts, emotions and eventually the behaviors that will allow you to open or close your creative spigots.

Design a Conducive Environment

Clarity, direction and the right tools can reduce stress and fear of unknown. This gives the brain the freedom to create connections and not deal with immediate threats. Remote and hybrid work can complicate this picture. It is therefore important to plan how communication and work are organized. Companies that are serious about product innovation cannot have open conversations in the office that can sometimes lead to creative sparks. They need a way to remain consistent creative even when they're far away.

Andrew Yanofsky is the head of operations at WowWee toy manufacturer. He explains how the pandemic forced companies to think more strategically and be more structured about the expected yields from brainstorming meetings. His company has changed to reflect this reality. Yanofsky explains that we cannot rely on face to face conversations for ideas. Therefore, we are more deliberate about setting the mandates for meetings and moderating sessions. We also monitor the steps after brainstorming. Yanofsky says that the penholder is someone who oversees the entire process. He also monitors key deliverables and ensures that everyone feels safe.

Exercise New Mental Muscles

You can keep the PFC engaged while reducing fear and anxiety by taking control of your disruption and clarifying your team's approach to creative processes. Cross-training your brain and engaging in different activities can help you increase creativity during stressful times. Research shows that creativity can be enhanced by venturing beyond your area of expertise.

One study found that diversifying your focus areas can increase cognitive flexibility. This allows for greater creativity and fluid thought. Marie Incontrera, a social media marketing consultant and composer, chose this path. She credits Dorie Clark, a Top 50 Business Thinker and HBR contributor, for helping her to find a new direction in her creativity. Clark and Incontrera created an original work of musical theatre during the pandemic. It was a lesbian spy musical, Absolute Zero. The program was run by Apples and Oranges Arts. They hope to see the show on Broadway by 2026.

Connectivity to increase

Individuals and companies both struggle with the disruptive effects of uncertainty, prolonged stress, and disruption. Lourdes Olvera Marshall, executive coach and diversity and inclusion strategist, discovered that while remote work increased productivity, creativity declined as employees were in multiple Zoom meetings throughout the day.

To help our brain overcome these difficulties, we can facilitate the release the social hormone, Oxytocin in our brains. Olvera Marshall explained that her team was able to achieve this by getting back to basics. She allowed time for non-task-related conversations at the start of a Zoom meeting so that colleagues could get in touch. Her team also makes time for one-on-one communication every week, with no agenda. Olvera Marshall said that these small moments have proven to be a great way to build trust and psychological safety among team members.

This type of social connection can be a powerful tool for creativity because it builds trust and is a foundational element to creativity. Olvera-Marshall noticed a marked increase in idea sharing after a few meetings per week that started with positive, personal interactions. She said that everyone approaches work with a more relaxed attitude, which activates the parasympathetic systems and creates the right environment for new, diverse ideas. This, in turn, boosts motivation and creativity.

These strategies are helping Olvera Marshall and her team to foster creativity in their leaders. This improves brain neurochemical balance by decreasing stress hormones and increasing prosocial hormones. It helps to reconnect creativity networks that may have been disrupted by continued uncertainty.

You can transform the stress of disruption into fuel to creativity by taking the above proactive steps. This will reduce your evolutionary fear reflexes, and instead nourish and revitalize your creative brain circuits. These ideas can be used whenever your creative juices need a boost. However, they are especially useful during times of disruption and rapid change.