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How to stay creative and resourceful under pressure

with the Holly & Co resident coach


The nature of running a small business is that there will be periods of uncertainty and situations in which we have little or no control. Of course, the past year has only amplified this. Yet, if creativity is core to our business, how do we stay grounded in that rather than becoming paralysed by fear?

Our resident business psychologist and coach, Kate has talked us through the neuroscience (how the brain and nervous system interact), to help us understand how we can interrupt the cycle before it spirals and build resilience in the long-term. Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge that creativity is not just your USP, it’s your superpower. Like all superpowers, it needs protecting from kryptonite-like energy-sappers that halt creativity.

Stress is the number one culprit, but stress is inevitable – so how do we learn to cope with it? With resilience. Resilience is our ability to adapt and recover from whatever life throws at us. Kate says, ‘I like to think of it as our inner elasticity – how flexible and adaptable can we be whilst maintaining the strength not to break? What’s our bounce-backability? How can we pivot? How can we be really creative to manage change?’

Often, our natural stress response is disproportionate to what we’re facing. Why is this? It’s because our brain and body have a primitive response, often referred to as ‘fight or flight’, that switches off the prefrontal cortex when it detects threat. This is the part of the brain that offers the resourcefulness that we actually need most in those scenarios – the ability to analyse and make decisions. Instead, our emotional centre (the amygdala) directs our energy to our muscles, telling the body to pump blood to them in anticipation of having to physically defend ourselves or run. It’s a response that made sense when we were hunters-gatherers and may have faced a bear while going about our daily business, but the biochemistry hasn’t evolved in the way our everyday lives have.

‘Lots of people think resilience is a trait – that you either have it or you don’t – but actually, it’s really about nurturing a set of habits and practices to bolster yourself.’

‘The good news,’ Kate tells us, ‘is that our brains are highly plastic, so we can ‘pattern-interrupt’, stopping our natural response to stress and regaining balance. Over time, the more we do this, we start to build new neural pathways through which we learn to deal with stressful situations differently. Lots of people think resilience is a trait – that you either have it or you don’t – but actually, it’s really about nurturing a set of habits and practices to bolster yourself. We can’t change the world around us, but we absolutely can change how we feel about it.’

Pioneering psychologist William James posed the question, ‘Are you running from the bear because you’re afraid or are you afraid because you’re running from the bear?’ This nicely illustrates the fact that once the physical effects of stress start happening – shortness of breath, increased  heart rate, tense muscles, dry mouth – it’s a signal for the brain to react emotionally, in fear. So, by spotting those physical responses and keeping them in check – by focusing on your breathing, by stepping away from the computer, by mindfully making a relaxing cup of tea – you train the brain to notice and reset your neurobiological state.

You may have heard of this strategy already or may be well-versed in the mechanics of the fight-or-flight response, but the problem is that we don’t practise pattern-interrupting enough. Just as we exercise our muscles, we need to exercise our responses to situations. That way, our brains create a kind of muscle memory and it becomes easier to stop stress before it takes hold.

‘We can’t change the world around us, but we absolutely can change how we feel about it.’

Follow these three steps next time your mind starts running away with “what ifs” that block your creativity:

1. Notice your triggers and understand them: What tips you into a fight-or-flight state? Is it when you feel you have no time to yourself? Perhaps this makes you start feeling overwhelmed and it then seems that the demands go up and up? By naming what you’re feeling, this reframes it as data you can work with rather than an emotion you have to fear. So, for example, ‘I feel guilt when I don’t spend time with my kids’ or ‘I feel attacked when I receive feedback.’ Keep a diary or simply write a note when those feelings emerge that can unbalance you. You can then refer back and more clearly see the patterns of what sets you off and what that does emotionally. Take note of the things you’re telling yourself in your head as well. Is there a negative voice that’s trying to protect you by preparing for the worst? Could you counter that with a positive, supportive voice?

2. Practise ‘Press Pause’ strategies: Pattern-interrupt and do something to reset your neurobiological state so you can regain access to your creative brain more quickly. It may feel really important that you deal with the perceived crisis at hand, but even if you can take five minutes to focus on your breathing and regulate it again, you will start to feel the rational thinking coming back in. If time allows, take 20 minutes out to go for a walk, speak to a friend, or do some exercise. That’s the ideal amount of time to let the body reset itself. That’s not always possible, so if you can dedicate just five minutes a day to practising some kind of mindfulness that calms the nervous system, this will build resilience which then becomes second nature.

3. Re-engage and get back to creativity: From this place you can think more rationally, creatively and resourcefully. You can start to see the choices in front of you, and all of a sudden, a lot more becomes possible. When you have clarity on the problem at hand and how to tackle it, you’re no longer allowing the catastrophising to snowball and cause unnecessary fear of what the future will bring. So keep the stress at bay and bring your prefrontal cortex back into play! Stay creative – protect your superpower.

Keep these handy steps nearby and hopefully you’ll find it easier to stop stress in its tracks and get back to what’s important – your business. By pressing pause, you’ll allow the prefonrontal cortex to come into play. Don’t forget that this is the place where deep thinking and decision-making happens, where the creative genius lives. As you consciously help that re-connection to happen, you’ll no longer be experiencing tunnel vision and can see all the choices and resources available to you – a much better place to be!

Kate Downey-Evans is a qualified business psychologist, with over 15 years worth of experience in some of the world’s largest corporations, including Bupa and HSBC. In 2019, Kate launched The Green Door Project to help both individuals and organisations discover the hidden diamonds, unlock their potential and achieve the extraordinary.

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