How Creativity Affects Your Stress Levels

In the 1600s, René Descartes wanted to dissect cadavers for his scientific studies. At the time, human dissection was not allowed because the prevailing religion of the time believed that damaging the body would also damage the soul. Descartes used science, philosophy, and religion to change this belief and gained access to cadavers. His ideas eventually led people to the philosophy of Mind-Body Dualism, which says that emotional, mental, and physical health (mind-body) are completely separate (dualism). 

Today, we know that our emotional, mental, and physical health are inseparable. This blog series will explore the ways our emotional, mental, and physical health are connected, and how we can use this to our advantage as we strive for better health.

Have you ever spent 30 minutes making a craft with your grandchildren, cooking a new recipe for dinner, or doodling on a napkin at a restaurant? Did you end those 30 minutes feeling relaxed and rejuvenated? That’s exactly how creativity affects your stress levels and improves your health. 

We’re living in a world that is more stressed than ever. A 2015 study shows that 45% of missed working days are because of stress, and that percentage can only have increased in recent years.

We can’t remove all stress from our lives. What we can do is learn smart, effective ways to deal with it. One of those smart, effective ways is creativity.

Stress Kills Creativity

A stressed brain is a distracted brain — it has reduced memory, learning, and attention abilities. People who report feeling angry, sad, scared, stressed, or frustrated are the least likely to think of creative ideas. 

Analysts recently studied over 9,000 daily diary entries from individuals engaged in projects that needed creativity, and the researchers discovered that stress (in this example, time pressure) caused less creativity. 

One popular study shows that stressed rats returned to familiar habits, responses, and routines instead of thinking cunningly. When under stress, their brains changed — and not for the better. Regions of the brain that are connected with goal-oriented behaviors became smaller, and the regions connected with habits grew more active. The rats under chronic stress repeatedly did the same activities and experienced the same results, regardless if those actions brought they closer to their goal (food). 

Like the stressed rats, we tend to “live on autopilot” when we’re under stress. We revert to habitually stressed thinking, not breaking out of the mindset to relax or think differently. Our stress breeds more stress, which breeds more stress, and so on.

Stress brings physical ailments (depression, headaches, chronic inflammation, asthma, infectious disease, cancer, reduced immunity, digestive disorders, and cardiovascular disease) and it’s just as bad for our mental health, especially in one way we may not expect: our creativity. The higher our stress levels, the lower our ability to be creative. However, the reverse is also true: the higher our creativity levels, the lower our stress levels.

Creativity Kills Stress

Creativity requires focus, perspective, and emotional expression that interrupt stressed, negative mental patterns. People who regularly practice a creative hobby, who regularly feel “in the flow,” report higher overall life satisfaction compared to people who don’t engage in creative hobbies.

According to research from Harvard, when we keep a diary or engage in large, creative projects, we have a different state of mind during our most productive periods. When we feel deeply, happily involved in our work, we’re less stressed.

This is why art therapy is shown to be effective in studies where patients with chronic illnesses find refuge in creative activities. These patients experienced reduced stress and anxiety and heightened positive feelings.

A 2012 study analyzed data from more than 1,000 participants showed that creativity is the only personality trait that decreased mortality risk, even trumping intelligence and openness. The researchers’ opinion? Creative people are better at handling stress. 

Perhaps another reason creativity reduces stress is that when we think creatively in our chosen hobby, then we also think more creatively at work, in relationships, or in social events. Creativity breeds creativity.

As creativity reduces stress, it also increases productivity, explaining why creativity seems to occur in waves that feel unpredictable and uncontrolled. Many of us would agree that we have our best ideas when we go for a walk, take a long shower, commute to or from work, or are nearly asleep. 

Because stress can become a habit, interrupt your stress habit with a creative habit. “Feel less stressed” is abstract advice, but “paint,” “write,” “garden,” “cook,” or “play an instrument” are tangible, easy tasks. They require us to take creative action in the midst of stress — with only good results to come. When creativity becomes a habit, it is similar to meditation, replacing stressful thought patterns with positive feelings and mindsets. 

The next time you have the option to watch Netflix or scroll through social media, stop. Put down your remote and phone. Pick up a creative habit instead. 


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