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Is stress dulling your creativity?

April 11, 2011

If you’re working too hard and you feel as though your life is work, work, work, then the chances are that you’re playing havoc with your ability to be creative. When Rob, a chiropractor, booked an appointment with me he looked tired and depressed – admitting that running his own business wasn’t as much fun as he’d anticipated. Close to burn-out and anxious about the future, Rob had finally decided that enough was enough…

As his story unfolded, Rob told me that he hadn’t taken any holiday over the preceding 18 months – and even over the Christmas holiday he’d ended up in bed with flu rather than enjoying his time off.  Recognising that he couldn’t sustain his workaholic lifestyle had prompted Rob to seek help so that he could find out how to alleviate his stress.   

I first suggested that we look at how Rob was managing his time.  Gazing at his feet, he replied that he never had the chance to manage his time because all of his days were spent dealing with problems as they arose.

This was where the root of Rob’s problems lay.  By crisis managing all the time, Rob had no spare capacity for planning – and yet it was this lack of planning that was causing Rob to be in a permanent state of crisis in the first place.  It was a double-bind situation that many people running their own businesses find themselves facing sooner or later.

I outlined to Rob that one of the secrets of good time management was to focus and prioritise – with the ultimate aim of spending all work time on matters that were important but not yet urgent.

“At the moment, all your time is spent on activities that are both important and urgent,” I said, “and this is causing your stress levels to rise. “

Shaking his head in protestation, Rob said, “I understand what you’re saying – but to be honest, I think I’m at my best when I’m under stress.  If I don’t have a crisis or clients demanding attention, I tend to switch off.”  Rob went on to admit that he tended to multi-task, which gave him a buzz – and made him feel both in control and dynamic.

“I can see how it might feel that way,” I told Rob, “but actually, however good you may feel, your body is still reacting to stress signals.  Not only does stress have a negative effect on the body – making the immune system less effective, as you found out at Christmas – but it also has a major impact on your creative abilities.”

Rob frowned – and asked me to explain. “Well,” I said, “when your body is under stress, the ‘flight or fight’ response is induced.  Unfortunately, our bodies are unable to calibrate the level of threat to our being – it’s as though there is simply an on/off switch.  Or in other words, our response to threats will always be identical, whether we’re face-to-face with a sabre-toothed tiger or whether we’re face-to-face with a towering in-tray.

“When we’re responding to a threat our bodies start to function in survival mode – which means that our more sophisticated bodily functions cease to work properly. Digestion, for example, is not necessary to our immediate survival, so when we find ourselves in a stressful situation, blood and oxygen are immediately diverted to our muscles and to the primitive part of our brain only (the amygdala) that deals with “fight or flight”.

I went on to point out that when the more sophisticated parts of the brain are not receiving optimum amounts of blood and oxygen, our ability to listen to anything rational or ‘see the logic’ in an explanation is dramatically diminished.  Similarly, creativity is not   necessary for the “fight or flight” response and therefore our ability to innovate – let alone problem solve – is severely impaired.

Having understood the reasons why he needed to change his way of approaching work, Rob and I spent the rest of our time together creating a work schedule that would enable him to catch up with the backlog and plan properly for the future.


  1. When you’re working in the “crisis management” state in which everything is both important and urgent, you’re in a state of stress.
  2. Stress that continues over long periods results in impaired rationality and creativity.
  3. While you might temporarily feel good when you’re working under stress, know that it will have a negative impact on your body – especially your immune system.
  4. Understand that your body can’t distinguish between major and minor stress – or in other words it perceives all stress as being equal. Make sure that you allow enough time in your day for exercise and relaxation to combat the negative effects of stress.

Plan a work schedule that enables you to deal with things that are important but not yet urgent. This will not only ensure that you’re better able to deal with the workload – but should a real crisis occur, you’ll still have time to deal with it.

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