As I am writing this article, it is the middle of winter. Dark days. Snow storms. COVID surges. How am I feeling? Not very motivated. Definitely not creative.
Many people have struggled with creativity during the pandemic. As a non-writer myself, I can only imagine the struggle that many writers have gone through during this time.
As a therapist, I am always curious about practical strategies to implement in the face of struggle and pain. I will review some strategies below, but first some neuroscience about what might be going on if you are struggling with creativity right now.
When faced with a threat (particularly something that might threaten your health) your nervous system goes into fight-flight-freeze mode. Your brain is solely focused on surviving this threat.
Unfortunately, you cannot physically fight COVID (unlike fighting back if a bear attacked you), and you cannot run away from COVID, either (as the virus has reached all corners of the globe). So, your nervous system essentially gives up. You play dead. Feel numb or dissociate. This is freeze mode, which is really a last resort. The other two strategies didn’t work, so you freeze.
In freeze mode, other bodily functions like digestion temporarily slow down. Your body is focused on survival in the moment, and digesting your breakfast from two hours ago really isn’t the priority right now. Higher cognitive tasks like executive functioning and creativity can also be compromised during fight-flight-freeze. These, again, are not crucial for your immediate survival, so they take a back seat.
The opposite of fight-flight-freeze is called rest and digest. In this response, your body can relax and return to a more regulated state. This is when you can sleep deeply and feel at peace. The trouble with COVID is that this has been a chronic issue—and, for many of us, we are stuck in freeze mode which results in chronic stress.
First, we need to acknowledge the collective trauma and stress that we are going through as a society. The pressure to produce and be creative can be crushing, and so we need to respond to this as if it is a crisis situation (because it is!). If you are looking for permission to slow down, here it is. You are allowed to pause and take a break.
It is okay to step away or reduce the number of projects you take on (if you are able to). It does not make you a failure or mean that you are no longer a writer or an artist. It means that a change has happened in your life, and you are taking steps to adjust and adapt. Just as we might enjoy snow sports in the winter and sunny hikes in the summer, some people find that their creativity comes and goes throughout the year. This is normal!
Now, shifting into some strategies. What I see in my therapy practice is that one of the most healing practices is being able to identify your emotional needs and to take the steps to meet those needs. So, if your mind or body are screaming “I need a break!” your job is to listen and meet these needs if possible. This can help us get back into rest and digest.
When you are ready to come back (or if you feel a break is not needed) here are a few tips to jump start your creativity:
Research by Henriksen et al. (2020) supports the use of mindfulness as a way to enhance creativity. This also serves a dual purpose—mindfulness practices can help you get back into a rest and digest response by bringing your mind into the present moment and encouraging psychological safety. New to mindfulness? Try watching a video of a body scan or doing a mindfulness of the breath meditation as a starting place.
During pandemic times, our exposure to new sensory stimuli has been greatly reduced due to spending more time at home. Further, if your mood is low, everything can feel grey and boring. The research by Henriksen et al. (2020) suggests that intentional mind wandering can assist the creative process.
One of the best methods I have discovered for mind wandering is to start with a new sensory stimulus. Trying a new food, going to a new park or coffee shop, cuddling up with a new fluffy blanket, listening to a new musician, or savouring a new delicious aroma can be that spark you need to access your sense of wonder and let your mind follow new paths of intentional wandering.
Creativity opens you up to critique, and you can be your own worst enemy. Your inner critic makes you doubt the work you are doing and is quick to find flaws. Humans have an inherent negativity bias (look it up—it is a thing!) and so your inner critic is not going away anytime soon.
However, you can develop a relationship with your inner critic and ask them to take a step back: “I see you and hear your voice loud and clear; would you mind taking a step back for a moment?”
You may need to continue this process again and again, but it can be much easier accessing vulnerable emotions and ideas when you feel safe and free from harsh judgement. Journalling can also help in discovering where the inner critic comes from, what its agenda might be, and what the inner critic needs from you (hint—it is often a projection of earlier hurt that needs love and nourishment from an adult version of yourself).
Henriksen, D., Richardson, C., & Shack, K. (2020). Mindfulness and creativity: Implications for thinking and learning. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 37, 100689. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tsc.2020.100689
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Register Here: FBCW - Feb 27: Sunday Webinar: Coping with Perfectionism and Imposter Syndrome - Tips from a Therapist (bcwriters.ca)
Victor Wakarchuk, RCC, MSW, RSW, is a therapist in private practice specializing in working with queer men. Learn more at www.centreforgaycounselling.com.
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