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Can Traumatic Experiences Make You More Creative?

Can increased creativity be a coping strategy for dealing with trauma?

While many people experience trauma after surviving a life-changing adverse event, whether it be natural disaster or act of violence, a successful recovery often leads to posttraumatic growth.   Defined as the retrospective perception of positive psychological changes that take place following traumatic  events, posttraumatic growth can occur in different ways.  Whether through improved personal relationships,  discovery of new possibilities in life, increased self confidence and inner strength, heightened spirituality, or a renewed appreciation of the joy of life, many  survivors can describe their lives as being stronger than ever due to the hardships they experienced.

But can posttraumatic growth also lead to increased creativity? The biographies of many highly creative people often link their inspiration to the tragedies they had injured. The Mexican painter Frida Kahlo survived polio, a serious traffic accident, and multiple miscarriages to become one of the greatest painters of her generation. Johann Sebastian Bach was orphaned at the age of nine and only ten of his twenty children would live to adulthood.  Robert Louis Stevenson was plagued by poor health and chronic depression throughout his lifetime.   

Based on biographical information, researchers have suggested that creative people may be able to channel their negative experiences into inspiration for their work, and possibly use creativity as a coping strategy for dealing with hardship.   Although the past twenty years has seen increased research into posttraumatic growth (along with related concepts such as stress-related growth, benefit-finding, and growth through adversity), demonstrating a link between creativity and trauma has been more difficult.

In a recent research study published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, Marie Forgeard of the University of Pennsylvania conducted survey research looking at perceived self-creativity and how it relates to adverse life experiences.   She also reviews the existing literature linking creativity to adversity focusing on:

Negative life events - This includes research into the "orphanhood effect" which suggests that highly accomplished people are more likely to have lost one or both parents at an early age.   The orphanhood effect seems to be particularly strong for writers with rates as high as 55 percent being reported.   Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has suggested that the orphanhood effect may be due to the need for children who have lost a parent at an early age to take on adult responsibilities and mature more rapidly than other children in their age group.   Losing a parent or other traumatic early experiences can also lead to greater social isolation and a tendency to ignore social conventions - something seen in many intensely creative people.

Psychological disorders - For reasons that are still unclear, artists, musicians, writers, and other creative people are also more prone to psychological disorders in their lifetimes than what would be expected of people in general.    The most common psychological problems reported by creative people are either depression or bipolar disorder though the rate of reported mental problems can vary widely across different creative domains (e.g., poets are more likely to report psychiatric symptoms than other writers).   While there are different hypotheses for this link between creativity and mental disorders, including that people with emotional problems may be more likely to choose creative careers, Forgeard suggests that people in emotional distress may use creative activities to heal and move on with their lives.

Physical illness  -  Research into the lives of creative people such as Botticelli, Michelangelo, Duret, and Monet has suggested that physical illness can be literally life-changing for many people.   Not only does experiencing illness lead to a change in life priorities, but can also lead to a renewed passion for new interests and new creative directions.   In her book, When Walls Become Doorways: Creativity and the Transforming of Illness, Toby Zausner wrote about her own battle with ovarian cancer and stated that "an illness that feels like an impassible barrier can become a
doorway to a new and more creative existence.”   In the same way, many artists experiencing serious illness report that their illness led to a renewed inspiration that took their art in new directions.

While research has largely focused on famous artists, writers, and composers, posttrauumatic growth can provide virtually anyone with a creative inspiration that may not have existed previously.   According to assumptive world theory, adverse experiences tend to shatter pre-existing assumptions about life and how the world is meant to be.    As old assumptions once taken for granted as being true are set aside, people making sense of their experiences form new assumptions about themselves and the world through a process of rumination.   Along with intrusive rumination (unwanted thoughts relating to the traumatic event), deliberate rumination also lets people explore their experiences to try to make sense of what happened.   Through the cognitive processing underlying intrusive and deliberate rumination, people who are open to new experiences can gain fresh insights from even the most traumatic events.

For her study, Marie Forgeard recruited 273 participants using two online sites:  Amazon Mechanical Turk  and authentichappiness.org.   The Authentic Happiness page is the homepage of Dr. Martin Seligman, positive psychology pioneer and Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and includes questionnaires and resources on positive psychology.   Research participants filled out an online questionnaire to measure adverse life events, posttraumatic growth,  event-related rumination, and creative growth.    

Results showed a strong relationship between number of adverse lifetime events and perceived creative growth as well as breadth of creativity (number of creative domains reported by each participant).    As expected, intrusive rumination was a significant predictor of posttraumatic depreciation (with life worsening following trauma) while deliberate rumination was a strong factor in posttraumatic growth.   Some surprising results also turned up.   For example, creative growth seemed to be related to self-reported negative changes in personal relationships.   In other words,  people who felt more isolated after a traumatic event also reported being more creative.   

Deliberate rumination does appear to be linked to stronger creative growth as well as improvements in relationships, spiritual development, and other aspects of life following a traumatic experience.    There also seemed to be significant differences in terms of the type of of traumatic event being experienced.   People experiencing physical (but not sexual) assaults showed the greatest increase in perceived creative growth, far greater than sexual assault or accidents. 

Still, perceived creative growth did not necessarily carry over into actual creative achievements.   As Forgeard pointed out, people often felt  more creative after a traumatic experience although their actual achievments can range from apparently minor changes in their artistic output to major works of art.   Posttraumatic growth can take different directions depending on the life paths that survivors may follow.   Even if having a traumatic experience does not turn someone into a Botticelli, emotional growth can lead to increased life satisfaction and productivity, whether through great works of art or other life accomplishments.

Forgeard also suggests other possibilities given the apparent link between adverse experiences and creativity.   Could using creative arts therapy help trauma survivors move on with their lives by encouraging posttraumatic growth?   As research continues to explore the often-murky relationship between adversity and creativity, we may discover new ways of encouraging healing and enhancing creativity in all humans.

 

Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto, Canada.

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