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Stress and Creativity: A Rare Combination That Actually Works

Depending on how we look at it, stress can both stimulate and disrupt creativity. Many artists may use stressful situations and emotional turmoil in their creative work, but stress and emotions such as anxiety can interfere with creative thinking.

Look at Adele for example; she has expressed before that her second studio album, ‘21 ‘was inspired by a tough break-up with her former partner. It turned out to be the bestselling album of the 21st century in the U.K. topping charts in 27 different countries, including Switzerland, Sweden , Mexico, Poland and Greece, and sold more than 17 million copies worldwide.

According to research by Professor Modupe Akinola of Columbia Business School, negative mood-triggering situations and stress can in some ways enhance creative expression. “Vincent van Gogh was said to have painted some of his best known works, such as Starry Night, after some of the most trying events in his life,” she says.

Creativity coach, author and psychologist Eric Maisel writes about how the creative life can be an ongoing source of stress – if we interpret or frame it as such.

He explains, “A stressor is anything, positive or negative, that makes a demand on us. Stress is our body’s physical and psychological reaction to those demands — on the physical level, it is a buildup of chemicals that keeps increasing as the stress persists.

The stress buildup is the reaction, and the demand or stressor is the cause, but the demand can actually be positive at the same time. Imagine your editor calling you up and telling you that she wants a new book from you. That’s great unless you can’t see how on earth you can fit writing it into your schedule. It is nice to be wanted, but her call still creates a demand and stress.

Shifting how we respond can lead to experiencing stressors in another way. We can normalize or even re-frame many demands as opportunities, and when we do, the associated stress vanishes.

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