Today is a tough day. I’m dealing with stuff and there’s a tight knot in my chest and work is taking twice as long because my concentration is off, to put it mildly. There is worry crying out from behind my head, knocking on my door, demanding attention – but it’ll only make things worse if I don’t get things done, and if I don’t do them well – which means being creative and critical.
So I’m all too aware that it’s a lot easier to say “harness the stress,” than to put that in practice, and that for all of us, there’ll always be days when it’s better to just stop because the brain won’t work and that’s it, and there’ll be other moments and situations where we can actually use that stress and turn the tables on it.
When stress hurts creativity
Under stress, our brains shut down the critical functions that are behind the creative process and switch us over to auto-pilot mode. It becomes much easier to do routine tasks, to do things that require less complex thought and that have less consequences or importance to us. We probably feel terrible, and tasks that provide quick, instant reward are more tempting than those tasks that require long term effort and new approaches.
In the face of stress it is tempting and easier to just adjust and accept things, than go against the grain and beyond routine (ie, by definition, be creative). Sometimes acceptance is necessary, but for creativity we ideally don’t want to get used to anything. As RL Stevenson said, “I cannot get used to this world, to procreation, to heredity, to sight, to hearing; the commonest things are a burthen. The prim obliterated polite face of life, and the broad, bawdy, and orgiastic—or maenadic—foundations, form a spectacle to which no habit reconciles me.”
How stress can help creativity
So sometimes the best thing to do might be to find a friend and vent, to take some time out (if we can), or to get routine things done that we haven’t been able to get round to in a while. Other times though, instead of avoiding stress and hoping it will go away, we can confront it and incorporate it. We can take a step back from our own issues and use the stress to understand and criticise things that are wrong with the world. Difficult experiences tend to challenge pre-existing and uninformed assumptions we have about life, and that is useful.
We can use creative outlets – like writing, articles, stream-of-thought, art, music etc to dwell on and process what is causing us stress, and thereby start to deal with it. Instrusive rumination – where unwanted thoughts about a difficult or traumatic thing invade our days – is a sign that we can’t just ignore this thing. Deliberate rumination, however, lets us explore what we’re going through and frame it in a way that we can make sense of it. A thought process that might start off as intrusive, but eventually becomes deliberate, can give us fresh insights. And that means, even if there’s no brilliant book or work of art to show for it, we’re being creative.
On a more macro scale – looking at how we deal with stress over the course of our lives rather than in a moment – deliberately dealing with life’s stress builds independent thought, a key component of creativity. Difficult things (including political marginalisation because of race, religion, sexuality, gender, and/or economic situation) can cause us to be socially isolated, leading us to question social conventions, and thereby strengthening our creativity.
For a more investigative look at how poverty and marginalisation can affect creativity, see my article How Creativity Is Killed in the Majority World.