Stress is like a two-story house

In today’s fast-paced environment, it’s all too easy to become stressed. Overwhelming and copious amounts of stress inhibit almost all facets of our lives, creativity in particular.

When we are under high levels of stress, we are put into “a fear response which limits access to the parts of our brain responsible for thinking flexibly and creatively,” according to Dr. Casey Call, Assistant Director at the Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development. This means that too much stress does not allow us to reach our full creative potential.

However, it is important to note that stress is not always a negative factor in the creative process. In fact, when a person is under a moderate amount of stress, his or her creativity levels can actually improve. The Yerkes-Dodson Law describes the correlation between alertness, which can be seen as stress, and performance, which can be seen as creativity. According to the Yerkes-Dodson, creativity can actually be boosted with moderate amounts of stress. Dr. Call gives the following example.

“If you have excited energy about writing lyrics to a musical piece it may be beneficial…to help you engage and think creatively. But, if you are completely stressed out and feel like you will never be able to come up with lyrics in the time allotted, it may be detrimental to your creativity because it is overwhelming and limits your motivation and attention to the task.”

Basically, there is an optimal amount of stress which allows a person to reach their full creative potential, but once stress exceeds that optimal amount, creativity is stunted.

Celia Nowlin ’19 is accustomed to balancing stress and her creative endeavors. “I write my own songs because I find writing them helps me work through my emotions,” Nowlin explains. She says the songs she writes come out best when she’s not under too much pressure to produce a finished product; instead, she works best when she is simply writing for herself, to express emotions and her creative side. Whenever she feels too much stress, her creative flow becomes inhibited and her raw emotions cannot be fully expressed or converted into a creative piece.

Dr. Call helped explain the science behind stress and creativity in an easy-to-understand metaphor.

“Think of the brain like a two-story house with the lower floor consisting of the brainstem and the limbic system and the upper floor consisting of the cortex,” she explained. “The lower floor is responsible for breathing, hunger, fight/flight/freeze, heartbeat, emotions, sleep, etc. The upper floor is responsible for creativity, planning, complex thinking, making connections, problem solving, language, etc. When your body is overwhelmed with stress, you are living solely on the lower floor with no access to the upper floor. Therefore, you respond out of fear, survival and instinct. With a low to moderate amount of stress, you have access to both floors of your brain. Therefore, you can make connections between experiences, be thoughtful about decisions, and approach problem solving with creativity.”

Keep an eye out for the next part of this three part series for tips on how to nurture creativity and reach your maximum creative potential.

Leave a Reply