Creating Our Way Through Tough Times
Being creative when things are hard (in world events or personally)
Recently many of us have been living in the throes of collective grief over world events.
No matter your political convictions, just reading the news or going on social media has made “normal life” difficult.
Even if we keep away from the news, at some point we will each encounter moments where we feel emotionally under-resourced, struggle to cope, or it’s a challenge to keep on keeping on with our normal goings-on.
That might be a work setback, or a personal life change, or just the state of the world.wrote an intriguing piece on how personal and political stress tend to overlap, coalesce, and layer — and ways to deal. We all need “out of the box” solutions to confront and cope with moments when the world, or our lives, seem too much.
In living through a personal or political crisis, our coping mechanisms (whether healthy or unhealthy) are as crucial — and determinative of outcomes of our lives — as our choices or habits when we’re running on a full tank.
A transformative approach to consider in moments of crisis, emotional and intellectual-stuckness, or I-cannot-go-on-ness is shockingly simple: Get creative.
Trying some arts and crafts might be the furthest thing from your mind when you're at emotional bottom — but it may very well be the thing that can ‘unstuck’ you. A ton of research indicates the definite link between creativity and our resilience through tough times.
Creativity plays a crucial role in helping us keep going by providing a source of inspiration and motivation. As the PF February 2024 Planning Tips articulated (on practice as a reset) it doesn’t in particular matter what you practice: just that you’re willing to get your hands dirty and think outside the particular box where your mind, feelings, and body are stuck.
When you, even temporarily, dislodge yourself from the problem or crisis at hand — whether that’s personal or a larger, societal, political one — you’ll a) likely immediately feel better, but also b) through your creative work or afterwards, be able to tackle whatever’s got you pinned in the first place.
This doesn’t mean dodging or evading the severity and weight of whatever issues are going on in your inner life or in our world. It’s just following the near universal adage, which we know from Albert Einstein:
“You cannot solve a problem at the same level of thinking that created it.”
Getting creative and curious is a huge part of mindful problem-solving. Science on mindfulness indicates precision and vividness are two of the keys to getting at a solution to any problem — and what decreases when we’re stressed, in crisis, and in fight-or-flight mode? Exactly our aptitude to see things clearly, with curiosity and perspective.
When you’re engaged in any type of creativity or art, likely what you’re honing in on is your sense of both precision and vividness. Your brain enters a space where the world and your problem — while still potentially huge or overwhelming — may not look as intractable or unchangeable as you thought.
Creativity, Intuition, and Adaptability
Creativity tends to happen at the level of intuition. If you’re moving a paintbrush, or a piece of clay, or a pen across a blank page, if it’s going well, it’s not a matter of (over)thinking every next word, line, or movement.
You’re moving at a subconscious level that involves making decisions fluidly based on a deep sense (aesthetic and emotional, not rational) of what the next right move is and whether something good is coming out of your efforts.
Within the scope of that page / canvas / hunk of clay / [insert your medium] before you, there is no wrong answer. When you realize there’s no wrong answer, and can roll with the punches or move intuitively according to whatever comes up, you’re demonstrating you’re not just being creative, but also adaptable to what’s before you. We all know adaptability is a sort of golden catch-all quality that we need in order to live and work successfully in a rapidly changing and uncertain world.
Ways to Process Strong Emotions Creatively
While being creative can help you get through crises, it can often be harder to access that playful or experimental space when facing a traumatic or painful moment.
In trauma, our bodies go into fight-or-flight mode. It also means that in the aftermath of difficulty it can be challenging to get out of that loop of stress.
To exit the stress loop, which makes it harder to think outside of the box and be creative, what we most often need is space. Distance. A pause.
And yet, we’re living in a time where we’re confronted with a continuous stream of horrific images and stories of intense suffering.
Part of taking a creative approach to coping with all this will inevitably be about taking space when and where we need it. Sit with what you’re feeling. It’s not about shutting down the inputs that are coming in, or coming up, but being with them for a few moments. Acknowledge that big feelings are a reasonable response.
It’s natural to experience distress in distressing times. We all experience the full range of human emotions (helplessness, grief, anger, fear) at different times in our lives.
The question then is: how do we process those emotions?
Worth saying it again: Taking a creative approach doesn’t have to mean sitting down with colored pencils or paint. (Though it can mean that.)
It might be sharing online with friends and your community, or undertaking a cooking project for the people you love.
Some creative prompts you could ask yourself might include:
What is my vision of how this could go better?
What’s my dream (for myself or for the world)?
What would a peaceful reality or world look like?
Instead of staying online, on exactly the same tools that may be stressing you out, consider a physical process where you actually write this down, draw this, or move it (dance it out, using intuitive movement) to help ground you. From a grounded place you’re more likely to be able to take considered and meaningful action.
To get concrete, here are a few other simple ways to dial into creativity, when your mind, body, and nervous system might not be * quite * there yet:
Tap into the present moment. What’s right in front of you? Can you look at it, and the creative tools available to you in this exact second from a different perspective?
Look or listen to creative work you love.
Think about who is already available, who you could collaborate with, or build a creative practice together.
Break out of the same old, same old. While routines support us they can also * at times * hinder us. Go outside! Something wonderful and unexpected might happen.
Get moving or ground yourself. Physical movement is directly linked to also feeling mobile in our ideas.
Emerging from Chaos with Creativity
Strong feelings and struggling to cope are normal in times of crisis. The way we react may also not be a linear process; like grief, our emotional state will likely ebb and flow, go through various stages, and affect each of us as individuals differently.
In moments of emotional upheaval, our conventional day to day might fall short in helping us cope. That’s part of why tapping into your creativity is cathartic. We need a space and a moment to be able to express and process what we’re going through. Whether it’s writing, art, music, or cooking — creative expression forms a bridge between your internal world, and the external one.
Creative practices allow us to get in touch with a different part of our brains; to revisit the foundational love and values that made us who we are, and to confront vividly the complexity of what’s before us.
Reconnecting this way returns us to our personal sense of purpose and meaning — a return that can be hugely healing and necessary when confronting pain (big or small, personal or wider/societal/political).
Creativity has the potential to transform our heartache from a paralyzing force into a catalyst for personal growth and resilience.