What You Need to Know About Stress & Creativity

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It's easy to think of stress as the enemy of creativity. After all, how are you supposed to find time to write that poem or bake that cake when a million obligations are breathing down your neck? Yet our most stressful times are also when we need creative outlets the most. (We've all had the experience of unplugging for a creative break and coming back totally renewed, right?)

We dug into some of the science around stress and creativity, and while we didn't find the magical cure for a too-busy schedule, we did pick up a few pointers for balancing creative passions and real-life obligations. Here's what we learned:

Unrestricted creativity feels ah-mazing

But we already knew that, right? There’s real proof that crafting and making are effective at reducing overall stress. For instance, a study out of Drexel University showed that 45 minutes of art-making lowered people’s cortisol levels (that’s the body’s main stress hormone) while boosting mood.

So that's the good news. Now here's the not-so-good:

Pressure removes the pleasure

Think about the last time you had a deadline for a creative project — maybe it was a due date from a client, or maybe it was Christmas morning. When you have a deadline looming, that creative glow immediately gets a little less ... glowy.

That’s what a Harvard Business Review study on time and creativity found: When someone working on a creative project is put under time pressure, their overall sense of joy takes a dive. Yes, they still got the work done — and they may have even felt creative — but they enjoyed the process much less.

And the effects of a deadline on your brain chemistry are no joke: During the study, the areas of the brain associated with creativity basically went dark while under a time constraint. Meanwhile, the habit-forming parts of the brain lit up, which could explain why some creative people turn to sometimes-unhealthy vices during times of stress.

How to find the happy balance

Do we all have to quit our jobs and go on permanent tropical vacation? Probably not, but if you're able to try that approach, by all means, go! For the rest of us, tapping into creative joy is possible day-to-day, especially if you have a little neuroscience knowledge up your sleeve.

Turns out creativity isn't just about chilling out. It's more about balance. There’s a perfect neurological cocktail that drives creativity, and it includes serotonin (which controls your feelings of calm and fear) and dopamine (which covers the spectrum of boredom to excitement). According to a Stanford study , creativity skyrockets when these two intersect, making you feel both relaxed and energetic.

You're most likely to reach this neuro-nirvana when you can keep overall stress down to a dull roar. That means taking care of the basics like eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep. And when it's time to really focus on a creative project, do your best to remove distractions from your physical surroundings and plan ahead as much as possible. That way, you're not crushed by deadline pressure before you even get started.

The very best thing you can do, though, is to make your creative process part of your daily routine. Regular rituals are by nature less stressful than unplanned events. The more you can practice creativity as an everyday habit, the more you'll reduce surrounding stress. And ultimately, that means the time you spend making (even if it's just a few stolen moments!) will be that much more full of joy.

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What You Need to Know About Stress & Creativity