When the magnitude of this global pandemic first hit us here in the US in March, I was hit with a massive wave of panic, just as so many others were.
And like many others I know, especially those who run businesses or work for themselves, my response was to scramble and to hustle. Things felt completely out of control, so I did the only thing I could think to do to reassert some control—I worked.
Reading the news would make me feel powerless and defeated, so I would respond by working long hours and checking things off and solving problems. It didn’t feel good, but at least it felt like I was doing something.
After about a week of this, I began to realize that I was falling into some unhealthy old habits. I am a recovering workaholic, and for me, work can be a way to distract myself and numb out when things get really hard. The problem is, although productivity feels good in the moment, it does absolutely nothing long term to relieve my stress. In fact, it only adds to it as I grind away every day on problems that become bigger and bigger in my mind the more I work on them.
For me, this is the difference between healthy distraction from stress and unhealthy distraction. Healthy distractions in my life are exercise, cooking and baking, gardening, sewing, reading, and art of all kinds. These things all provide the long term benefits of creative practice. They soothe frayed nerves and strengthen my sense of self-sufficiency.
Unhealthy distractions might be working long hours, stuffing down emotions with food, or drinking in excess. While I think these are all natural responses to stress that we dip into from time to time, I also find it important to recognize which of them will be beneficial to me in the long term as well as in the moment.
So I sat down and came up with some creative projects I wanted to pursue. I wanted to learn how to use watercolors. I wanted to spend more time drawing, just for the sake of it. I wanted to write every day. I made a list, then carved out chunks of my day to take breaks and practice these things, to keep myself sane more than anything else.
All around the world, we’re seeing others reignite their own creativity in this time of unbelievable crisis. Why is that?
First of all, creative acts are empowering. When you enter into a situation that makes no sense and you have zero control over, it’s soothing to remember that you still have the capacity to create something meaningful. You can still assert your perspective. You can still connect to others through their own work, and share what you’ve made.
You also have the chance to practice and gain new skills. When you succeed at creating something, it feels good. When you fail, you make yourself more resilient. Over time, this builds a sense of power and agency. All of these things feel especially good in a time of chaos.
Second, most of us are at home. Suddenly, all our plans are canceled and we’re faced with new possibilities. We actually have the ability to be idle for a little while. We can play. We can entertain ourselves. We can ask ourselves questions we didn’t have the space to ask before, like “How do I want to fill my time?”
Not everyone is fortunate enough to have more time at home right now, but for those of us that are, we’ve seen that’s it’s inspiring people all over the world to try something new, whether that’s learning an instrument or sewing a dress.
Creativity is self-care
When I get stressed, my perspective narrows. All I can think about is the source of my stress, as my mind churns, trying to find some kind of solution. I feel like I’m in survival mode. It’s like being stuck in a whirlpool.
Creating brings me to the surface again. It allows my mind to focus on something new while I build self-efficacy at the same time. It fills a need that each of us has deep within us. The need to create connects us all.
In this way, exercising our creativity can be a source of deep self-compassion in trying times. Many people are discovering that right now.
My hope is that this vital coping skill stays with us all, for whatever pain and suffering we encounter in our lives.