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Have you ever wondered why, when you’re stressed or angry, it becomes so hard to think clearly? Sometimes regular tasks that you’re normally completely capable of doing suddenly becomes impossible to carry out. Maybe you have a domineering boss or a spouse who berates you all the time. When you feel as if you are failing, everything begins to go from bad to worse. You begin to perform even more badly for things you are thoroughly competent in. And as you see that the other person is not impressed, everything goes downhill from there on. When you start to fail, the more you fail.
Or maybe you’re a parent or a teacher. If you have a child or student who finds it difficult to master the basics of a subject or task, you might become exasperated with them and show your anger. Maybe you lash out and want to force them to get on with the task. But this only makes the situation worse.
Maybe you’ve noticed that the child or student has the equivalent of a mental meltdown and is suddenly unable to achieve even the simplest of tasks. How can this be when they would normally be competent at it?
Well anger, and the stressful atmosphere it creates, has a direct effect on yours or other people’s ability to function properly, including learning or understanding things and being creative.
If you are creative and try to write anything, whether that’s a piece of writing or music, it’s much harder to come up with something under those conditions. Sure, sometimes we can channel our emotions into these as a way of expression, but when you do that you’ve probably not passed the threshold where the reptilian brain begins to shut down higher order functions. When you are under extreme stress or are seeing red, that’s when even these simple tasks start to become difficult, if not impossible to carry out. You simply can’t think anymore.
This is because of your brain’s decreased ability to function under these circumstances.
How anger and stress can affect your creativity and learning
American physician and neuroscientist Dr Paul MacLean proposed that the brain is made up of three parts:
1. The neo-cortex. This is the thinking cap which controls spatial reasoning, language, motor functions, cognition and sensory perpection.
2. The limbic system. This governs motivation, long-term memory and emotions.
3. The reptilian brain. This part is responsible for survival and instinctive behaviour, including habitual actions and defensiveness.
Whenever you perceive a threat or stressful situation, the reptilian brain takes over. Blood diverts towards this area and away from the higher order processing functions in the other parts of the brain. There is a “shutting down” effect resulting in the brain’s control functions displacing the capacity for problem solving, thinking and creativity. An individual’s peripheral vision becomes impaired. They end up focusing on the source of anxiety and resorting to behaviours usually learnt in childhood. The learner under stress will be resistant to innovation or new information, and will resort to rote responses.
Another example can be seen when a teacher constantly disciplines a pupil because of his or her inability to stay engaged in a task or inability to delay gratification. The discipline may actually create a ‘state of threat’ which perpetuates the problem. Any system of learning which uses heavy authority, position, laws, threats, rules or punishments will, over the long run, perpetuate the very behaviours it is trying to eliminate. The techniques may work initially, but soon the learner behaviour will become rote, minimised and stereotyped.
A clear fictional example of this is the Marvel Comics character, The Incredible Hulk. Whenever Dr Bruce Banner experiences extreme stress, fear or anger, he undergoes a metamorphosis into a green raging monster. In his classic iteration, Hulk loses most of his intelligence. His speech becomes more primitive and child-like or even non-existent. All of his actions are governed by fight or flight responses, and his brain’s higher order functions become severely impaired to the point of almost shutting down. As a result, his behaviour turns animalistic and defensive and he operates on pure instinct.
This is an extreme case of the reptilian brain kicking into overdrive. Although we don’t experience things anywhere near to same degree, it’s a useful analogy to demonstrate what happens.
Why is it so difficult to reason with someone who is angry? When someone is in that state, any sense of rationality goes out of the window. That’s because their higher brain functions have begun to shut down and they’re simply not able to hear things anymore or see things with the right perspective.
I’m not talking about righteous anger, where you are angry about something that is unjust or wrong. Indeed, Jesus burned with righteous anger when he saw that God’s holy temple was being used as a market place, with people selling or profiting off temple tax. In this situation, he was still in control and did not allow this to lead him into sin.
No, I’m talking about unrighteous anger where you’re consumed with rage.
You’ve heard of the term “blind rage” before. Well, in one sense, it can blind you so that you are unable to see what is happening and our judgment is completely clouded.
How can we get back to a place of peacefulness where our creativity can thrive?
Read on below.
4 practical steps to help overcome anger and stress and re-engage your creativity.
1. Forgive others
Anger interferes with our peace and overall sense of well-being. If we harbour unforgiveness and bitterness in our hearts, it acts as a slow poison that eats away at us. Although we may be completely justified in feeling that way towards others if they have wronged us, in the end it is actually bad for our own health holding onto that resentment.
Ephesians 4:26 says
“In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.”
When we keep reliving an incident in our minds and dwelling on how the other person has wronged us, we simply reinforce those negative feelings and neural pathways. This causes us to be more stressed as we continue to think about it, and especially if we keep discussing it.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t ever talk to others about it. Perhaps it may be worth seeking counselling. But this should ultimately be with the purpose of pointing you to the right solution of helping you to forgive. It’s better to release that anger and bitterness to God, rather than simply to find someone else with whom you can vent for the sake of venting.
Sometimes that means going to that other person and being reconciled with them, even if they may have been the one who wronged you. However, there may be times when it is not possible to be reconciled with that person, particularly if they are now dead or you have lost touch with them. You can still choose to forgive them for your own sanity and well being so that it is no longer something that is eating away at you.
This is not to excuse the behaviour of another, particularly if you have suffered emotional or physical abuse, but simply to release your feelings to God so that you are able to feel more emotionally healthy overall. This is a big topic in itself, and I don’t want to really go into this here, because it will take us off this subject and open a can of worms. You can read more about forgiveness in Dan Allender and Tremper Longman’s excellent book Bold Love.
You can see how anger, bitterness and unforgiveness can affect your creativity and ability to understand things when you are in this state.
It might also be worth exploring anger management, which I don’t want to cover here, as that is a topic in itself and more about anger itself than how it is related to creativity.
2. Take some rest
When we are overly tired or stressed, this can impede our effectiveness in being creative. As we try to push on forwards to make a breakthrough, it can actually be counterproductive for us. We can end up becoming more frustrated and stressed that we’re not able to achieve our goal. As we become angrier that we’re not progressing as we should, this can trigger the reptilian part of our brains so that even the simplest things soon become impossible. Then we begin to feel like a failure.
When we take time to rest and give everything to God, we can gain more peace about the situation. This can actually make us more creative.
When we experience REM sleep (the state we are in when we dream), the visual, kinesthetic, emotional and autobiographical memory areas of our brains activate in greater measure. These are all related to our multiple intelligences. At the same time, the areas that control rational thought take a back seat. This allows for a greater stimulation of our creativity and enables us to arrive at innovative solutions that we would not otherwise think up while we are in our waking state.
Resting entrusts everything into God’s hands and realises that he is the one who blesses our plans and makes everything grow.
I’ve written about this in more detail here.
3. Get a change of environment and go for a walk or a swim
If you’re feeling stale and uninspired, then why not unplug and get away from technology and the same old surroundings? Take a walk, a bike ride or a hike out to the country or to the mountains or forests and experience nature. Use the time to behold God’s beauty in creation.
Alternatively, if you’re into swimming, why not use the opportunity to go to your local pool? Swimming has plenty of health benefits to relieve stress and help you relax. When you swim, it releases a natural endorphin that produces feel-good emotions as well as affecting neurotransmiters such as seratonin that affect mood. It can also produce ANP, a stress-reducing hormone. Research also shows that it helps to produce brain chemicals foster the production of nerve cells which helps creativity.
Swimming also has a calming effect. Generally speaking, you also can’t take any technology with you to the pool and are therefore forced to let go of everything else. The sound of your own breathing and the rush of the water can help you drown out all other distractions and helps to lower stress, feelings of anxiety and depression.
However, if you do find that as you swim laps, your angry or stressful thoughts begin to occupy your mind, then get an underwater iPod and listen to some music. This also takes the monotony out of swimming laps. I do this all the time. Usually I have workout or dance-type music on my playlist to get me energised as I swim. It helps me to work harder and keeps me going. But because all you can do is focus either on the music or swimming, it tends to clear your mind and shifts it away from your problems.
If you’re feeling angry or stressed out, a good swim might be just what you need.
On the subject of music, this next one is related.
4. Listen to or sing some praise and worship music
When we listen to praise and worship music, we shift the focus of ourselves and our own problems. This is even more the case when we sing it out. As we verbalise the words, although it might seem hypocritical at the time to be singing this about God or to be praising his attributes, a subtle shift happens. When we agree with the words and their truths, we can’t remain where we are. A change in our state of mind and perspective on things should occur, even if our situation is unchanged.
Darlene Zschech says in her book Worship Changes Everything
“When we worship God, we align our hearts, wills, and thoughts with His heart, will, and thoughts.”
As we come into God’s presence, we can experience his peace which can calm our anger, stress and anxiety.
You can read more about this in detail here.
Additionally, when we engage with music, this can also produce a chemical in our brain called dopamine. This controls our pleasure centres and helps to reduce stress. This has a positive effect on our ability to learn and our creativity. You can read more about this here.
Do you ever find that anger or stress impedes your ability to learn, be creative or function generally?
What do you do to relieve your feelings of anger or to de-stress?
Leave your comments below. And if you found this article helpful, please share.
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Robert is the founder of Drawing on the Word. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Theology and a Master’s degree in Systematic Theology. He also has a degree in Law and was called to the Bar. Robert previously taught religious studies and was a theology lecturer. He is an artist, musician and writer, and has created a graphic novel version of Luke’s gospel. You can follow him below.