INFJs are sensitive, creative people with a passion for helping others and expressing their ideas. They may seem quiet and reserved on the outside, but on the inside, these complex folks are a bubbling cauldron of insights, energy and enthusiasm. But there’s one thing that can stop an INFJ from expressing their creativity and that’s stress. Stress can stop creativity in its tracks, leaving the sensitive INFJ to feel like they’ve failed, they’ve lost their talent or maybe they never really had any creativity in the first place.

Before you pack up your paint brushes or shove that unfinished novel in a drawer, let’s take a look at how stress affects your brain and behaviour and what you can do to get your creativity flowing again.

How Stress Affects Your Brain

Creativity takes a lot of energy. Ask anyone who has faced a blank screen after a long day at work. Stress also uses a lot of energy. Whether it’s tight deadlines, an argument with your spouse, money worries, moving house or just having too much to do, there’s only so much space in your brain to deal with it. Trying to think creatively when you’re stressed is like trying to open a door that’s blocked by loads of stuff piled up in front of it. No matter how hard you try, there’s just too much in your way and you can’t get through. Chances are you can’t even reach the door handle and you end up even more exhausted, frustrated and stressed.

The prefrontal cortex section of your brain is what allows you to think. This is the engine that lets you make decisions, understand information and recall facts, or what is known as “conscious thinking.” When you’re choosing which car to buy, remembering your kids’ appointments and trying to make sense of that spreadsheet at work, you’re using your prefrontal cortex. But all this conscious thinking, especially about details, uses up energy and there’s only so much to go around. If you’ve used it all on stressful activities like making major purchases, remembering to-do lists or making life decisions, there’s not going to be anything left for thinking about your creative ideas.

To help us think clearly and perform at our best mental ability, humans need the right level of neurotransmitters like norepinephrine and dopamine, according to David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work. These chemicals make us feel alert, focused and interested in what we’re doing. Too little of them makes us feel bored and lethargic, so we’re not motivated. But when you’re stressed, your body creates too much of them, triggering a state of fear and anxiety that gets in the way of creative thinking.

According to psychology professor Mark Beeman, author of The Eureka Factor, the more anxiety we experience, the fewer insights we have, including those necessary for generating new ideas and being creative. That’s because fresh insights come from our ability to absorb subtle subconscious information from our environment, and anxiety and stress block the path of this information from moving from the world into our brain. Even for sensitive, intuitive types like INFJs, who naturally pick up cues from their surroundings on a daily basis through their subconscious, stress becomes a barrier to the absorption of ideas.

Those wonderful “a-ha!” moments you get when a great idea or solution to a problem just pops into your mind don’t happen by accident or, sadly, because you’re a genius. It’s information that you’ve absorbed subconsciously and comes to you when you’re not busy thinking and worrying and feeling stressed. Because it’s a subconscious process, you don’t realise it’s happening and that’s why those aha moments feel so magical. But for them to happen, you’ve got to get stress and anxiety out of the way.

How To Get the Creativity Flowing

Amazingly, trying harder to be creative is not the answer. Working hard at being creative when you’re stressed is like trying to open that door when there’s a pile of boxes in the way. The harder you try to reach the door, the harder it gets and then you start to feel bad about yourself and what a terrible job you’re doing and that just piles on the anxiety. So the more relaxed and happy you are, says Beeman, the more creative you will be. And for INFJs, the more creative you are, the more relaxed and happy you’ll be.

When INFJs are under a lot of stress, they can fall into the grip of their inferior function, Extraverted Sensing, which makes the INFJ unable to think about their normal visionary ideas, be creative, or help others with their characteristic empathy. Instead, we become focused on moment-to-moment living and satisfying our cravings for sensory pleasures by overindulging in eating, drinking, sex and even risky behaviours that seem totally of character and ultimately make an INFJ feel miserable, disconnected and self-loathing.

Here’s how INFJs can step away from the stress, get back to their normal way of functioning and get those ideas flowing again:

  1. Seek solitude - INFJs are introverts who recharge their energy by spending time alone, which means being around people a lot will cause you stress. Make time for solitude, quiet and a few moments of peace. Establishing a regular mindfulness meditation habit can help you enter that tranquil state and make private time a priority.
  2. Write it down - Trying to remember facts and details uses up a lot of energy. For INFJs, it’s particularly exhausting. As insightful, big-picture thinkers, INFJs can get bogged down in detail, which inhibits their natural ability to put ideas together in a creative way. Get all that information down on paper so you don’t use up your valuable mental resources on memorizing when you could use it for creating.
  3. Take a break - Your brain needs time to recover from thinking, planning, worrying, organizing and all the stress that comes with it. For INFJs, this means giving your primary function, Introverted Intuition, a rest. A good way to rest your brain is to stop thinking and do something easy. There’s another collection of parts in your brain that use a lot less energy than the busy prefrontal cortex. They’re called the basal ganglia and we use them for activities that are mundane and we’ve done so often, we don’t need to think about them anymore, such as washing dishes, knitting or driving to work. This is why so many people get fresh insights or solve problems when they’re in the shower or walking the dog – it’s not because of the activities themselves, but because your brain has a chance to rest when you do them.
  4. Relax in nature - Another great way for INFJs to relieve stress is to spend time in nature. Whether you’re hiking in the woods or swimming in the ocean, the natural environment gives your brain a chance to relax. Giving your brain a rest is key for INFJs because they love to think and, as sensitive people, they are constantly absorbing information from the world around them. Spending time in nature also gives INFJs a healthy outlet for their Extraverted Sensing function, allowing them to enjoy positive sensory experiences, rather than indulge in unhealthy ones like eating or drinking too much. Studies show that our brain has to work hard to make sense of information we absorb in man-made environments and creates an internal focus that generates anxiety, but when we’re in nature, our focus shifts outward and the brain can process what we see, hear and smell without much effort, providing the relaxed, calm state we need to be creative.
  5. Timing is everything - Creativity is essential to INFJs. It’s their way of processing all that information they absorb and making sense of the world. But it also uses a lot of energy, so try to plan your creative work at times when your brain is rested. Trying to be creative when you’re stressed will only cause frustration. That might mean writing your poetry first thing in the morning, before anxiety sets in when you check your emails, or working on your pottery later in the day, after your relaxing evening run in the park.

When we’re stressed, we tend to focus on facts, details and trying to remember lots of things as a way of coping, but using up all the energy in our brain for thinking instead of creating and generating even more stress and anxiety for INFJs. When we relax, we can shift our focus away from all those stressful, detail-oriented thoughts, and make room for the insights that fuel our creativity.

When you relax, you can move the clutter that is causing stress out of the way, and you’ll create a path to the door to creativity. Once you do that, you won’t have to work harder to be creative and you won’t have to feel bad about yourself for not fulfilling your potential or wasting your talents. And when you relax and stop trying so hard, that door to your creativity will open by itself. Just like magic.

Deborah Ward
Deborah Ward is a writer and an INFJ. She has a passion for writing articles, blog posts and books that inspire, motivate and encourage people to build self-confidence and live up to their potential. She has written two books on mindfulness, Overcoming Low Self-Esteem with Mindfulness and Overcoming Fear with Mindfulness. Her latest book, Sense and Sensitivity, is based on her Psychology Today blog of the same name. It's about highly sensitive people and is out now. Deborah lives in Hampshire, England, where she enjoys watching documentaries, running and taking long walks in the country, especially ones that finish at a cosy pub.