Revitalize your medical practice: Embrace creativity!

“Creativity is intelligence having fun!”

George Scialabba shared a variation of this quote in a 1984 Harvard Magazine article, though it is often attributed to Albert Einstein.

National Creativity Day is coming up on May 30th. What does that have to do with being a doctor? Everything!

Dr. Amy-Jo Farrow in the U.K. and Dr. Charity Hix in the U.S. speak to the importance of nurturing creativity in our lives. The demands and expectations placed upon physicians these days feel excessive. Exercising your creativity muscles, alongside exercising your physical muscles, is one way to support burnout recovery and prevention.

There are so many ways to be creative! I know doctors who draw, write, dance, make music, make films, take pictures, take cooking classes, plan a garden bed, or plan an adventure. I even know a group of doctors who do improv!

You’ll be inspired as Dr. Farrow and Dr. Hix speak about how incorporating anything from planting to painting to pyrography can add joy to your life and contribute to increased career satisfaction.

Dr. Amy-Jo Farrow

Doctors are expected to be logical thinkers and problem solvers. Throughout training, we memorize vast quantities of information, learn to recognize patterns of symptoms, and develop our decision-making skills. The practice of medicine requires us to follow the evidence base to ensure that we are doing no harm, but many recognize that medicine is often closer to an art than a science. Problem-solving and lateral thinking benefit from a creative approach. Nurturing creativity is worthwhile as it enhances these areas of work performance and can reduce stress.

Burnout is caused by chronic unmanaged workplace stress. In doctors, this stems from the limitless personal and professional demands of the role, dysfunctional organizations, reduced autonomy, lack of social support, poorly communicated changes, and value conflicts.

A common feature of burnout is suppressed creativity, which compounds the problem. We may struggle to visualize an alternate reality or what steps are needed to get there, leaving us stuck. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to recovery from burnout; it requires introspection, imagination, and problem-solving to achieve post-traumatic growth and secondary prevention.

Like all skills, creativity can be developed and strengthened with regular practice. Activities that encourage self-expression could involve art, creative writing, performance, music, or photography but can also include daydreaming, play, entertaining others, and journaling. Creative expression does not have to result in a masterpiece to help us interpret and externalize our emotions. It is the process and not the product that confers the value.

Being involved in a creative activity we enjoy but find challenging can allow us to achieve a flow state, described originally by positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. The benefits include increased happiness, positivity, clarity, energy, and enhanced ability to focus, many of which are lacking in people experiencing burnout.

Time taken to engage in mindful creativity is restorative. Pursuits that foster self-compassion enhance self-appreciation and provide an opportunity for self-reflection, reduce the risk of burnout, and add joy to our lives.

Creativity is fundamental to intentionally creating a life that is joyful and aligns with our core values. It’s important not to overlook its benefits for well-being. Embracing creative pursuits can rejuvenate not only the practice of medicine but also promote the self-healing of healers.

Dr. Charity Hix

Medicine can often feel like you’re sitting in the middle seat on a cross-country flight—with a screaming, kicking toddler in the seat behind you. It’s cramped, it’s stuffy, and you often feel you’re more or less at the mercy of others’ decisions.

It’s one of the reasons I find it so important to nurture creativity inside and outside of medicine. If we don’t, we risk feeling trapped and stagnant.

Creativity. Imagination. Play. They go hand-in-hand.

While some may see frivolity, those of us who regularly allow ourselves to exercise our creativity “muscles” know it energizes our minds and bodies. It’s not just fun; it also improves our work and life.

One of the biggest misconceptions I encounter regarding creativity is people thinking they have to be “creative” with a capital C. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Anytime you use your imagination or produce something that didn’t previously exist, you’re being creative.

Creativity comes in all packages. Some people (like Amy-Jo!) create beautiful drawings. Others play an instrument, while some whip up exquisite meals. Still others may find pleasure in building models or refurbishing a car. Me? I enjoy doodling and playing in my garden.

The “what” of creativity isn’t the important thing. It’s the “how.” When you immerse yourself in a creative endeavor, you increase the likelihood of finding that magical “flow” state you might keep hearing about. It’s the blissful place where you’re fully immersed in the task at hand. It’s mindfulness in motion.

When you can stay in the moment, your brain gets a break from focusing on all the stress and negativity you may have encountered throughout your workday. This may be why creativity has been linked with increased subjective well-being, which, in turn, has been attributed to improved physical health.

A circular effect can then take place. When we feel better mentally and physically, we’re apt to become more expansive in our thinking. In this way, creativity is not only an outlet for stress, it can increase our problem-solving skills. By letting our mind drift from the challenges at work, we can loosen the grip of rigid thinking. When we “hold” a problem loosely, it becomes easier to take a more playful approach. We’re more open to new information and exploring alternatives that we might’ve otherwise missed.

When it comes to burnout, creativity can help stave off early symptoms and be a catalyst for recovery when you’re frustrated in your career. Are you feeling like a weary traveler, tired and needing a refresh? If so, take a serious look at incorporating creativity and play into your daily routine!”

Kim Downey is a physical therapist.

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