4 Ways to Spark Creativity When You’re Feeling Stressed
The Covid-19 pandemic has wrought massive disruption throughout society, leading to loss of life, health, jobs, childcare, industries, stability, and peace of mind as we knew it. It marks the first time in a century that everyone on the planet has simultaneously gone through the same unplanned, stressful transition. Despite experiencing such large-scale uncertainty, we can collectively rely on one thing: the human brain comes equipped with powerful response mechanisms to protect us.
To best leverage the brain’s inherent power, though, it’s important to first understand what happens on a cognitive level during stress. In disruptive or unpredictable situations, the brain tries to interpret incoming stimuli and form a plan of action if the news is bad. When precarious circumstances are prolonged and combined with anxiety and fear, the brain’s biological response is to hide rather than explore. From an evolutionary point of view, survival ends up taking precedence over creativity, as the stress hormones that ready us for battle also interrupt the networks involved in creativity.
The cognitive load from this subconscious scanning and scenario-building is one reason why we may feel more tired and uninspired than creative recently — many of us are living our lives in various stages of fight-or-flight mode. Why is this important? When we understand how the brain functions when we’re under threat or dealing with potentially frightening challenges, it becomes easier to design specific strategies to alleviate the fears that arise both consciously and unconsciously in the face of disruption, thereby supporting creativity. Here are four strategies that incorporate this understanding of your brain’s functionality to nourish and feed your creative instincts.
Experiencing a loss of control is one of the main symptoms of uncertainty and ambiguity. Continued uncertainty can provoke feelings of being adrift and make it hard to plan or make decisions. Under these conditions, your brain’s emotional amygdala circuits become increasingly active: instead of choosing proactive and thoughtful actions through the prefrontal cortex (PFC), you may become reactive and more likely to allow fear to guide you. Fear is the enemy of creative thinking because it directs neural resources toward neutralizing the perceived threat.
That’s why it can be a good idea to reduce uncertainty by planning your own disruptions. “When we’re the disruptors, it’s still scary, but we have a sense of agency and a powerful connection to a reason. We don’t know how it will end or if we’ll be able to do what we set out to do, but at least we’ve chosen the direction, and we’re heading toward our ultimate destination,” says Jonathan Fields, host of the Good Life Project podcast. According to Fields, taking this approach can center you enough to maintain a sense of control, breathe more easily, and think more clearly. This happens because focusing on your own ultimate destination engages your PFC, which is the seat of planning and control that helps regulate your thoughts and emotions — and ultimately the behaviors that can lead you to either open or close your creative spigots.
Design a Conducive Environment
Having clarity, direction, and the relevant tools reduces stress and fear of the unknown while giving the brain freedom to make creative connections rather than dealing with imminent threats. Yet remote and hybrid work have complicated that picture, making it more important to be intentional about how work, communication, and collaboration opportunities are structured. Without the chance conversations at the office that sometimes result in creative sparks, companies that care about product innovation need a way to stay consistently creative, even at a distance.
Andrew Yanofsky, head of operations at toy manufacturer WowWee, explains that the pandemic has forced teams to be more thoughtful and structured about the yields expected from brainstorming meetings. His company has made changes to reflect that reality. “Since we can’t rely on face-to-face conversations for ideation, we have become more intentional about setting mandates for meetings, moderating the sessions, and monitoring the steps post-brainstorm,” Yanofsky says. “Someone is designated as the ‘penholder’ for the whole process and keeps an eye on key deliverables from beginning to end.” Although many people view creativity as a free form of outside-the-box thinking, Yanofsky explains that by “making a sandbox and then playing in it,” his teams have formalized that process while ensuring that they provide psychological safety for contributors.
Exercise New Mental Muscles
While you’re keeping the PFC engaged and fear at bay by taking ownership of your own disruption and clarifying how you and your teams approach creative processes, you can further step up creativity during stressful periods by cross-training your brain and immersing yourself in new and different activities. Research has shown that venturing outside of your primary area of expertise can enhance creative thinking.
For example, one study revealed that diversifying your areas of focus can boost cognitive flexibility, which allows for more fluid ideation and creativity. Social media marketing consultant and composer Marie Incontrera chose this route, and credits collaborating with HBR contributor and Top 50 Business Thinker Dorie Clark as vital to sparking her creativity in a different direction from her core work. During the pandemic, Incontrera and Clark created a new work of musical theater, a lesbian spy musical called Absolute Zero, which was incubated in a prestigious development program run by Apples and Oranges Arts. Their goal is to bring the show to Broadway in 2026.
Both individuals and organizations struggle with the creativity-killing effects of prolonged stress, disruption, and uncertainty. Lourdes Olvera-Marshall, a diversity and inclusion strategist and executive coach, found that although productivity increased tremendously with remote work, brainstorming and creativity decreased since employees were often in back-to-back Zoom meetings most of the day.
One solution to help our brain overcome these challenges is to facilitate the release of the “social hormone,” oxytocin, in our brains. Olvera-Marshall told us that the way her team achieved this was by going “back to the basics,” allowing time at the beginning of a Zoom meeting for non-task-related conversation so that colleagues could connect in a personal way. She also continues to make time to connect one-on-one with her team members at least every other week with no agenda. “I’ve seen how these small moments generate connection and psychological safety as team members feel more comfortable with each other; plus, the meetings are more fun,” Olvera-Marshall explained.
This type of social connection becomes a powerful creativity booster in part because it increases mutual trust, a foundational element for creativity. Olvera-Marshall has seen a significant increase in idea sharing when a few meetings a week start with positive, personal interactions. “Everyone approaches work more relaxed, which activates the parasympathetic system and generates the right climate for new, diverse ideas, which in turn boosts motivation and creativity,” she said.
By employing these strategies, Olvera-Marshall is helping her company’s leaders foster not just individual creativity but also team creativity through socio-emotional support. This approach improves the brain’s neurochemical balance by reducing stress hormones and increasing pro-social hormones, helping to reconnect the creativity networks that continued uncertainty may have disrupted.
With each of the proactive steps above, you can turn the stress of disruption into fuel for creativity, lessening your evolutionary fear reflexes and instead nourishing and revitalizing your creative brain circuits. Implement these ideas any time your innovative juices need a boost, but particularly during your toughest challenges — after all, periods of rapid change, disruption, and global uncertainty are arguably when bold, brave creativity is needed the most.
By Susan Peppercorn and Maren Gube- Harvrad Business Review (Oct-2021)