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Stress Kills Creativity & How You Can Fix It

Stress Kills Creativity & How You Can Fix It

I am smack in the middle of my last semester. The stress of tests and final projects are bogging me down and my creativity isn’t doing it’s job.  

Because this represents the 800th incarnation of this recurring nightmare, I have been able to evaluate my feelings. What I have are the following thoughts:

                               “Holy crap, I’m going to fail this class if I don’t hurry and submit something. I really don’t want to take this horrible class again, so I better have… well, anything will work at this point.”

                              “I can’t believe they are charging me nearly $1,000 for this. Getting through this class will earn me not one, not two, but three whole ‘credit hours!’ A seemingly arbitrary number serving as the arcane currency of long-dead sociopaths — masters in young adult anxiety. Three measly credits are also wildly unrepresentative of the immense anxiety I now lament.

In related news, I also have the these competing thoughts:

“Holy crap, if I don’t work on my story/blog/editing I will never do it. And if I miss one day, I’ll never write again, because I have no discipline. They’ll find my body slumped over my typewriter, most certainly naked.
The dismal remnants of a once glorious collection of Pringles™ tubes and Toll House cookie dough tubs will be strewn about the room.
Five stacks of unfinished manuscript pages will compete for space on my cluttered desktop, the way bad cholesterol clogs the lining of my cold, empty, heart.”

These thoughts are, at best, unproductive. The problem is, both trains of thought run in unison. Rather than succumbing to either paradigm, I decided to blow off my writing goals and chose to ditch all homework. Instead, I began researching how stress impacts creativity.

Your body sucks when you’re stressed.

Increased heart rate:

Remember the last time your brain shut down because you had to use the restroom so bad you thought you would die? Probably not your most creative moment. Your heart was pounding, even if you didn’t notice, because it’s a sign of stress.

Arousal of the sympathetic nervous system:

This means launching into action and your fight or flight response kicks in. Your mind and body begin working together to make sure you can either slay the problem, or run away screaming from the enemy.

Reduced activity in the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS):

PNS mean relaxation. If this part of your system is sitting on the bench most of the time, rather than playing in the game, it could begin forgetting how to play correctly. I was especially concerned to learn that men could have real-life man problems if the PNS starts to suck. Chronic stress in men can cause erectile dysfunction or impotence. Now, you don’t have to have a Ph.D in psychology to know that I can’t be creative if I’m worried about… not being able to stand at attention.

Women are not immune:

Stress can mess up your family reunions (when uncle T.O.M. and aunt Flo come to visit). Women are also at risk of having less regular and more painful family reunions. How could you possibly be creative during that?

Muscle tension:  

Stress makes your muscles tighten because the body wants to help guard against threats. A billion years ago, people fought animals and I can assume that was pretty stressful. Even though stress is mental, your body doesn’t know you’re not being chased by a man-eating wooly mammoth. Stress induced muscle tension can lead to headaches as severe as migraines. Have you ever tried to be creative with a migraine?

Increased Breathing Rate:

If you have asthma or emphysema, breathing poorly is a no-no. Stress can change a person’s breathing pattern. Lesson? Stress makes creating anything impossible because hyperventilation and panic attacks don’t leave much room for controlled use of a paint brush.

Trying to be creative while stressed is hard but not impossible. The right amount of stress may get you to produce results, but it will probably not be your best work.

If you want to be creative, you have to beat stress. Here are the things I do to defeat stress.

Blow off my work:

I’m not saying completely forfeit the game. We all have responsibilities and we still want to accomplish our goals. What I mean is to go beyond taking a break, and actually let yourself disengage from the task. Everyone is different and every deadline is different. In some cases, all I can afford is thirty minutes off. Other times, I can take two days away from a project without causing a problem. Pick a time-frame and do something else.

Activate your lizard brain:

Seth Godin famously referred to our most base self as the lizard brain in his book Linchpin. While Godin teaches how to break free, I have found value in embracing my more carnal self when stressed. Having sex is a great stress relief and that’s backed by science, you can look it up. Tyler Durden was also right. It is freeing to beat the crap out of someone, and sometimes, to get the crap beat out of you. You don’t need to start a spontaneous bare-knuckle brawl with the mail carrier but you can take a martial arts class.


Physical Fitness:

Regular strenuous activity is solid gold cleansing for body and mind. Ever wonder why yogis are so happy? It’s not the wheat grass shots and hemp underwear. (For the record, I am a card-carrying “brogi”) Putting yourself through difficult cardiovascular (like running) or muscular (like lifting weights) exertion will actually cause your body to flush stress-induced hormones.

Create something fun:

I’m a writer. I write as a journalist and blogger, I write fiction and nonfiction, and I can’t stop. Sometimes it just feels good to be silly. I once worked a job where I spent up to 12 hours on end in front of my computer writing reports. Short breaks for meals and bathroom breaks were rushed. During that time, a friend and I began lacing our reports with the cheesiest language possible. We wrote entire paragraphs as though we were working on the raunchiest Harlequin novella and read them to each other as we wrote. Of course, all of that was edited out, but it helped us get through the high-intensity demands of our work. Whether you write or paint or make films, a great way to de-stress is to literally play around with your craft. Paint nonsense or film a kid building a fort out of sheets and couches.

How has stress stopped you from creating your best work?

What have you done to overcome stress?

Leave a comment below and share this article with someone in your life who needs to chill out and start being successful.



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