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Ideas in Motion

Reducing Stress Improves Creativity

Research has linked stress to physical reactions such as headaches, chronic inflammation, reduced immunity, asthma, digestive disorders, infectious disease, cardiovascular disease, and even cancer. It can cause deleterious consequences to mental health as well. In fact, scientific studies show a negative correlation between stress and creativity. Increased stress reduces creativity, and reduced stress improves it. In this article, we take a closer look at the impact of stress and how we can manage it to improve creativity.

Essentially, stress hijacks the brain function, causing us to revert to habitual responses. Stress hormones act to retard or stymie learning, memory, attention span, and the ability to focus. When we’re put on the spot and need to respond to something when we are distracted by stress in our lives, our mind reacts defensively and leads us to default to learned responses that can be inappropriate or, at least, benign depending on the circumstances. Obviously, we can’t eliminate stress from our lives completely, but we can learn to deal with it effectively.

One way we can do that is by honing our ability to engage in divergent thinking, or unconscious thought. The opposite of divergent thought is convergent thought, which is our usual thought pattern. Convergent thinking is the ability to accumulate knowledge, learn strategies, and employ techniques that we can replicate in future situations. It is linear (i.e. like a line) and emphasizes speed, accuracy, and logic. This thought process follows known cycles or a step-by-step progression. A simple illustration of linear thinking is, “if a=b and b=c, then a=c.” Reliance on logic too heavily, though, can be problematic since it relies on a starting point. That starting point determines the set of logical conclusions that can be considered. But, starting points can be limiting and even false, preventing a person from finding a better answer. For example, if a manager tells an employee to propose ways to increase profits through more sales, the employee likely will ignore potentially less expensive and demanding alternatives like cost-cutting to increase profits. The manager has set the “starting point” and limited solutions to ideas that generate additional sales revenue and not cost-cutting. Convergent, linear thinking does not lead to creative problem-solving of subjective or unfamiliar problem types.

In contrast, divergent thinking taps into unconscious thought. An example of unconscious thought is when someone looking for a new car researches several options, narrows the choices to 3, goes to off to play golf, and then makes a decision based on which choice is at the top of his or her mind. Unconscious thought requires divergent, non-linear thinking to look at the problem from several different angles. The focus is on information-gathering from a variety of sources and is less constrictive due to its inherent lack of structure. Non-linear thinking encourages problem-solvers to jump forward, and from side-to-side, in a project to see the big picture and the best starting point. Divergent thinkers excel at open-ended problems with many possible options. They tend to be more resourceful and less logical than convergent thinkers. The goal is to generate many different ideas in a short amount of time by breaking down the topic into component parts, with ideas coming in a spontaneous, random, and unorganized fashion.

Following are a few ways to reduce stress through divergent thinking and creativity. A positive brain is a more creative brain. Thus, when we do something that makes us happy like, getting away for the weekend, walking in the woods, taking up a hobby, or spending time with a pet, stress levels tend to subside.  Stress-relieving practices like yoga, tai chi, art therapy, counseling, sports, dancing, and journaling also have a significant impact when practiced daily. Another beneficial technique is meditation. One of the most popular types is mindfulness, which is active meditation whereby we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without believing that there is a right way or wrong way to think and feel in a given moment. Mindfulness has been shown to improve physical health by relieving stress, increasing cognitive ability, treating heart disease, lowering blood pressure, reducing chronic pain, improving sleep, and alleviating gastrointestinal difficulties. Lastly, we can incorporate fruits and vegetables into our diets. Many studies have found that green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale can boost feel-good brain neurotransmitters and reduce risk of depression. So, in addition to the health benefits of relieving stress, these practices have the added benefit of improving creativity!