The Power of Creativity in Stressful Times and How to Cultivate It

During difficult times, creativity is especially critical, helping us to pivot and adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. Creativity helps us view problems anew and find innovative solutions—and it’s likely helped you negotiate everything from working remotely without much childcare to creating a helpful routine when your once reliable structure dissolved.

Creativity helps us reconnect to ourselves as we explore and listen to our thoughts, feelings, and desires, and try to meet our needs.

Creativity can also calm us. As Amy Maricle noted, “As an art therapist, I can say that when you’re feeling stressed, sad, or angry, there’s a lot of satisfaction in being able to express what you’re feeling in words, images, or shapes, and then slowly transform it through paint or collage.”

Research has even found that creativity may help us live longer. According to the study’s author, Nicholas Turiano, this might be because creativity recruits different neural networks in the brain. He told Scientific American, “Individuals high in creativity maintain the integrity of their neural networks even into old age.”

In short, creativity is packed with stress-relieving benefits. To reap these rewards, here’s a range of suggestions to cultivate your creativity on a regular basis.  

Don’t rush to banish boredom. One of the quickest ways we squash creativity is to pull out our phones at the first sign of boredom—which we habitually do any time we’re waiting. Take for example, the urge to scroll and text at red lights, said Billy Manas, a poet, singer-songwriter, and author of the book Kickass Recovery: From Your First Year Clean to the Life of Your Dreams.

Instead Manas emphasized tolerating boredom, giving our minds the space to wander and explore. For example, instead of scrolling headlines, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Doodle. Fidget. Listen to a guided meditation.

Enter a dreamlike state. This is another way to carve out space for mind wandering. According to illustrator Vivian Mineker, trying to sleep sparks a torrent of ideas that “flow into my semi-conscious mind.” In this state between wakefulness and sleep, inhibition fades and her inner voice and vision come out. “I’ve gotten a lot of great ideas from doing [this].” 

Become a creative reader. When reading, Barbara Linn Probst, author of the novel Queen of the Owls, suggests interacting with the story: Imagine you’re experiencing a scene with all your senses; draw the characters or setting; or put yourself in the shoes of a minor character or a character who makes you uncomfortable.

Or explore different possibilities, Probst added, such as: What’s the most surprising thing that could happen next? What event could make the story take an entirely different turn? What if the protagonist or villain had a motive or history you weren’t aware of?

You can also predict a book’s ending, create a movie inside your mind as you read, or connect the material to your memories, said Cathy Goldberg Fishman, MFA, author of several children’s books, including A Winter Walk in the City.

Feature loved ones in a collage. Even though you might not be able to be with your loved ones right now, you can still stay connected through creativity, according to Maricle. In a blank journal, she suggests painting each page in a different color. Then paste a photo of your favorite people and write down “why you love them, why they make you laugh, feel special, and loved.”  This is also a great activity to do with kids.   

Try writing prompts. According to Julia Dellitt, author of the new book Whatever You Do, Be Happy, a writing prompt provides just enough structure to get started and “freedom to see where it takes you.” She suggested writing in great detail about a recent dream or your last restaurant date (recalling everything from the weather to your drink order to the reason you went).

Sketch shapes. Maricle noted that this creative activity isn’t about making art, but about “relaxing into the pleasure of putting pen to paper.” She suggested setting a timer for 3 minutes and picking a shape to draw—such as a circle or square. If this resonates with you, do this for another 3 minutes. “Experiment with making little adjustments to what you do each time,” she added.  

Pen a poem. This suggestion also comes from Maricle: First, write about how you’re feeling for 5 or 10 minutes. Next, read what you wrote and underline any words or phrases that speak to you. Cut these words out, and arrange them to create a poem.

Creativity, particularly right now, “can be a lifesaver,” Maricle said. The key is to cut yourself some slack when you’re creating—or doing anything for that matter.

According to Mineker, when we put too much pressure on ourselves to “be creative,” our minds go “blank from the fear of failure.” Fishman agreed: “Whenever we say, ‘Oh, that’s just a dumb idea,’ a little bit of creativity dies.” 

Instead, trust yourself and embrace your unique perspective and ways of looking at the world, Mineker said—without judging or editing yourself. Which are invaluable ingredients for navigating stress as a whole. 

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