Why Creative People Need Stress in their Lives

Daniel Kunitz
Jul 19, 2018 12:00PM

Stress is like ugliness: a concept upon which we all rely, but that we rarely trouble ourselves to define. Even Hans Selye—the Hungarian physician who originally formulated the notion, in the 1930s, to describe how one responds physically, mentally, and emotionally to demands (or stressors) placed on us—struggled to give stress a definitive shape.

The thing is, no matter how amorphous the idea may be, stress has real-world consequences. In fact, one reason for its success in infiltrating our vocabularies was that physicians in the early 1950s fastened on stress as a key contributor to what was seen as an epidemic of heart disease among white, middle-class American men. By the 1970s, stress, as a synonym for tension and anxiety, had become a defining affliction of modern life. And we know now that chronic versions of this affliction can cause hypertension and arteriosclerosis, while raising the risk of diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and depression.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that stress gets a bad rap. For artists, it’s assumed to be equivalent to living next to a radioactive waste dump—it causes sterility, leaving you uncreative.

That assumption makes a certain amount of sense. Because burdens—be they mental or physical—are at the least distracting, and are more likely energy-sucking, all-consuming pits of despair, it seems obvious that these states would be creativity traps. And, indeed, much of the existing research—despite being somewhat thin and directed almost exclusively at the conventional business community, focusing on how individuals fare in organizations—does support the widespread belief that stress dries out those creative juices.

One widely cited 2002 study, by Teresa Amabile (a professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School) and two others, asked 177 employees in seven U.S. companies to keep diaries of their workday in order to assess how time pressure affected them. The 9,000-plus entries they collected led the researchers to conclude that “when creativity is under the gun, it usually ends up getting killed.” In a Harvard Business Review article, the researchers explained that though “time pressure may drive people to work more and get more done, and may even make them feel more creative, it actually causes them, in general, to think less creatively.”

Such a finding should set off alarms in the art world, where deadlines for artists have mushroomed in recent years. Back when a successful painter or sculptor had the leisure to show every two or three years, giving them ample time to conceive of and produce work, artists famously resorted to vast amounts of alcohol to deal with the pressure. Now, with the production deadlines of a year-round art fair circuit—not to mention international gallery shows—prominent artists have the sort of strain associated with assembly-line workers. Fairs aren’t shutting down for lack of inventory, so pieces are getting made. But the study by Amabile and her team raises the question of whether the overall quality of artwork is being affected by the stress of constant deadlines. Are we making vital artworks, or just being more productive?

Of course, a deadline is only one of many possible anxiety generators. Another common source of stress can be found in the shifting roles that artists today assume: The fact that they wear many hats and often work across every conceivable medium. Doing so only multiplies the tasks that need to be completed, not to mention the problems specific to them.

I once visited the artist JJ Peet at a time when he was using a storage facility as his studio. He had a number of small rooms and storage closets, each dedicated to one type of project—video, painting, photography, or sculpture. Each was equipped with a kitchen timer, so that Peet could work for preset intervals (12 minutes, say) in one medium before moving on to the next. His strategy is ratified by science. Several investigations have shown that switching between tasks at predetermined intervals yields greater creativity than when people switch between tasks on their own initiative.

But if timers freak you out or if moving to a new location every quarter-hour distracts you, then Peet’s process isn’t for you. The problem is determining what will induce the most tension. Stress is notoriously tough to locate—Is it the looming deadline that’s affecting you, something you ate, problems with your significant other, or some combination of all of these?—and as the use of diary entries in many studies indicates, it is difficult to measure. If you’re looking at its effects on creativity, how do you determine what stressors to focus on, and how do you separate their effects?

One of the more innovative recent studies bypasses the problem of what causes stress by considering the effectiveness of recovery from it.

Combining diary entries, interviews, and devices to measure the sleep of 62 entrepreneurs, the research group—directed by Eva Weinberger, chair of entrepreneurship and innovation in the Department of Business Management and Economics at the Technische Universität Dresden—reached potentially confounding conclusions. On the one hand, better sleep correlated with higher levels of daily creativity, and stress was shown to be something we need to recover from. On the other hand, pondering work-related problems in off hours—behavior that we tend to think of as driven by anxiety—also resulted in higher levels of daily creativity. So, do we need to de-stress in order to do our best work, or do we need to be driven by stress to think about work problems much of the time? The answer, I think, is that we need to better understand the nature of stress itself.

As Weinberger’s study shows, all stress takes a toll that requires healing, and this fact begins to clarify what, exactly, is going on when we feel its effects. Put briefly, stress drives adaptation. The starkest example of this is exercise: If you go for a hard enough run, you will tax your system (through oxidative stress and metabolic damage), causing cells to produce more mitochondria, among other responses that result in better endurance. Churn through problems in your off hours or give yourself micro-deadlines, like Peet, and you induce stress that causes you either to adapt positively by coming up with creative solutions, or adapt negatively by procrastinating or taking a Xanax or giving up.

The point is that understanding stress means ceasing to see it as a negative thing. Stress is context specific. Like ugliness, it resides in the eye of the beholder. This is a fairly recent insight. As Mark A. Runco, the E. Paul Torrance Professor of Creativity Studies at the University of Georgia, explained, early on, when scientists began looking into stress, “they put together these life-change scales, weighing major events: loss of a spouse or family member scores very high because it contributes a bunch of stress, as do divorce and change in income,” he said. “However, their most interesting finding was that some of the most stressful events are happy ones: marriage, vacations, getting a raise. They pretty quickly realized that people react differently to events. In other words, the stress isn’t in the environment”—it is perceptual. This insight accords well with Weinberger’s study, which, the authors wrote, “clarifies mixed findings on the effects of psychological detachment (or ‘switching off’) from work in organizational behavior research by highlighting the benefits of emotionally-neutral engagement with work-related problems.”

If you’re someone who can think about a work quandary in your off hours in an emotionally neutral way, not letting it get you so worked up that, for instance, you can’t sleep, then doing so provides just enough stress—just enough stimulus—for you to adapt to it and come up with possible solutions. If not, you’ll feel overly anxious, lose sleep, and have a less-than-optimal next day.

Consider the fact that, as Runco said, “some people cannot be creative in a competitive situation, because they’re thinking about winning or what other people are doing. Their thoughts are all extrinsic, outside, so they can’t free the mind and create. Other people are motivated by competition; that’s the only time they invest in new ideas and originality and explore new options.” The trick, then, is knowing your stressors—though it is also a matter of knowing how much you can take.

“It’s a matter of degree,” said Runco. “I imagine that extremely high levels of stress will undermine everyone’s creativity, and where that optimal level is varies from person to person. For some, it’s very low, and when they reach that low threshold of stress, [there’s] no creativity; but other people have it pretty high, and these may be the people who thrive in competition or need to be driven.”

No matter how much stress is optimal for you, you will need tactics for buffering it when there’s too much. Both exercise and meditation are time-tested methods for training yourself to deal with stress. Runco added that there are therapists who specialize in cognitive restructuring, “which teaches people that they are in control of their thinking and that they can restructure their thoughts,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘Hey, this is your interpretation of stress, look at it from another angle.’”

So, that ugly impediment to doing your best work may turn into a beautiful inspiration—if you just embrace it.

Daniel Kunitz