How to Be Creative When You’re Feeling Stressed

by Elizabeth Grace Saunders, November 29, 2018

More than just lightly toasted, your brain feels singed.

You’re burned out, and the cumulative stress makes it hard to decide what to eat for dinner, let alone come up with innovative ideas. But people are still expecting you to produce creative solutions despite your current mental state. What do you do?

If you find yourself in this situation, I can’t offer any guarantees that epiphanies will come to you. But I can offer ideas based on my experience as a time management coach and on the science of how our brains work that can give you the best possible odds of coming up with some decent new thoughts.

To start, you need to let go of trying to “make yourself” come up with something creative. If you’re already struggling with stress, threatening yourself can further trigger the fight-or-flight mode. This causes you to operate out of the primal, least creative part of your brain. So instead of saying to yourself, “I must be creative,” or “This has to happen now,” it’s better to tell yourself something like, “I’m going to see what happens,” “I’m going to explore this possibility,” or “I’m going to play around with some ideas.”

You want to create a sense of psychological safety so you don’t experience debilitating performance pressure.

Once you’ve created psychological safety, then experiment with activities that can trigger the “diffuse-thinking” state. This type of thinking is one in which your brain operates in a looser manner, searching to make connections between different parts of your brain versus operating in the established neuropaths followed in the “focused-thinking” state. Activities like walking, napping, eating, or taking other sorts of breaks naturally put you into the diffuse state and open your mind up to new possibilities.

To maximize the benefits of these in-between times, avoid multi-tasking and let your mind explore a particular idea. For example, you could feed your brain these kinds of prompts: What might be involved in making this promotion a success? Or what might happen if we approached our customers in a different way? An openness of mind and non-judgment toward the quality or quantity of your thoughts gives space for creativity to come forth.

In particular, I find that I am most creative when I not only am giving myself space from my computer but also positioning myself in a “happy place.” In the warmer months, that’s somewhere outside preferably along a lake. In the cooler months, it’s likely a coffee shop with a fireplace. Beautiful, peaceful surroundings lift my spirits and creative mental capacity. Some of my coaching clients have found their happy, creative spaces in historic libraries, art museums, or even browsing through boutique shops. Know which environments naturally give you pleasure and immerse yourself in them to allow positive thoughts to arise.

If you still feel stuck and just can’t come up with something new, then you may want to give your brain more material to work with. This could look like reading on the topic, taking a field trip to a place where you can see other people’s creative solutions to a similar problem, or talking to experts. Sometimes by seeing what other people have done, you can come up with new ways to approach your own situation.

And then to even further increase your opportunity for breakthrough moments, collaborate with others. Alternating between solo thinking and time in groups proves the most effective way to develop the most creative thoughts. Have a brainstorming meeting with colleagues, get together for coffee with a friend, or do problem solving with a consultant. Two or more brains can work better than one. The process of talking through ideas can stimulate new thoughts and challenge your thinking.

Finally, give yourself time. When your brain operates at full capacity, you may have the ability to come up with creative thoughts on the fly. But when you’re less than 100%, you’ll have a much better chance of success by giving your brain time to percolate on ideas for a few days.

When your mind feels blank and all you want to do is zone out, it’s more difficult but not impossible to experience your breakthrough. By putting yourself in the right mental state and environments, you can find your creativity.

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