In my 20’s, a lightbulb went off in my head. I grew up believing that travel and moving were difficult (and subconsciously, should not be undertaken). But there was a point when I asked my Mom about my Dad’s side of the family (my parents were divorced), she said something to the effect of, “oh, your Father’s side of the family liked to travel. Your grandmother liked to move around”. Even though I don’t remember the exact conversation, the lightbulb that arose from that conversation has stayed with me my entire life. SOMEONE in my family liked to travel.

This moment of realisation, of permission (which, believe me, took a long time to work out in therapy), felt like the proverbial window flying open to possibilities and opportunities. I had so much to see. My curiosity, which had been stifled for so long, seemed to rise up in me and say NOW! I made a pact with myself that I would see the world.

Twenty years later, I’ve called 5 different countries home and am still adapting to my temporary situation and transitional life. All my travelling, moving and adapting — was never easy — but now I understand how I’ve done it and how it has positively affected my wellbeing and how you can embrace this new concept too. But first, let’s understand what it means to be adaptable.

Learning Adaptability

Whether you move halfway around the world or to the other side of town, a move is a move, and it requires you to adapt.

Adapt (verb) with object: make (something) suitable for a new use or purpose; modify.

Adapt (verb) without object: become adjusted to new conditions.

To be able to adapt, you have to do more than change. You have to modify your physical presence (for example, change to the new dimensions of the house), and you have to adjust your mind (for example learn how long it’s going to take you to get to the train station). To modify, change and adjust, to adapt, requires thinking, learning, and most importantly, emotional awareness, understanding and management.

Do you remember the first time you ever “slept over” someone else’s house? You learned how to adapt to the new surroundings, and you learned how to adapt to your emotional state. Perhaps you were scared and tried not to show it. Or perhaps you were the opposite and relished in the ability to stay up late!

You have to use your thinking, to respond both behaviourially and emotionally to a new situation.

You have to adapt.

We are all born with the ability to adapt. Our entire lives are constantly changing, and we’re adapting to those changes. But why is it that some people are better at adapting (with some people thriving in it) to situations than others? And more importantly, how does adapting enhance wellbeing?

A new scientific paper outlines a new approach to foster wellbeing. And we all have it and can harness it — it’s called Creative Adaptability.

Defining Creative Adaptability

There have long been studies that analysed the “creativity-psychopathology association”, the benefits of creativity, and outcomes derived from creativity in mental health. But as the author, Hod Orkibi points out, in the January 2021 study published in Frontiers in Psychology, “creativity as a personal protective factor has generally received little attention”.

For all you creatives out there, you’re probably saying “duh,” having known this your entire life. But what is so interesting about this paper is that it’s not just looking at creativity as an activity but as a thinking, process to overcome adversity (to adapt).

Creative adaptability is defined here as the personal ability to generate new and effective cognitive–behavioral–emotional responses to stressful situations.” Author of the paper: Hod Orkibi, University of Haifa, Israel

Why is this important?

Like me, you probably haven’t realised that you’ve been using your creative adaptability all along. I, for one, am so thankful for the language to describe what we’ve all been doing during the pandemic. We’ve been asked to stay at home, and we’ve had to adapt, using technology, building new habits, and finding solutions to problems we had never faced before. This is what creative adaptability is…. you have been using your “personal ability to generate new and effective cognitive-behavioural–emotional responses to stressful situations”. You’ve been using your creative thinking.

But there’s more to it than just being more adaptive in your actions, thinking, and emotional responses… it has wellbeing benefits that can potentially impact the next stage of life (post-pandemic).

The Impact of Creative Adaptability

The impact, in my mind, is enormous because although this study showcases several findings around enhanced wellbeing (outlined below), it may also have the potential to play a role in other personal domains. Here are some of the findings:

  1. Creative adaptability “predicted lower psychological stress” across the study. By engaging in creative adaptability, people had increased wellbeing and had less psychological stress.

“Results also provide evidence supporting the hypothesized positive correlations between CA and spontaneity, consistent with Moreno’s claim that spontaneity and creativity are closely related (Moreno, 1955)”.

2. The study also found a positive correlation (which does not mean it’s causal) between Creative Adaptability (CA) and the trait of openness. When you are open, you are more receptive to information to create. This link has been studied, outlining that creativity itself may have a personal protective factor enhancing wellbeing.

It could be argued that people’s CA linked to their openness and ability to generate new ideas, experience nd express new emotions, and enact new behaviors to handle the demands of a stressful situation (Ferguson and Bibby, 2012).

3. It may also play a role in enhancing a positive personal identity. By supporting “self-definition and identity” and “affirming positive sense of self”. Creative Adaptability may also be fostered the other way around from our positive self-perception, creating a positive creativity loop. If you succeed with your creatively generated new ideas, it can potentially impact your self-definition and identity, meaning you will value yourself as creative. And when you perceive yourself as creative, you engage in creative generation. The loop that fosters wellbeing.

4. Finally, the study (which was conducted in Israel) took place during the height of the COVID pandemic. The research results found Creative Adaptability minimised “the effect of COVID concern on well-being, thus buffering the impact of risk”. Fostering wellbeing!

How to Foster Personal Creative Adaptability

We are all creative. You create new ideas, perspectives and thoughts. You create new behaviour and actions in response to situations. You generate new “potentially effective” emotional responses when encountered with stressful situations. This is your creative adaptability in action. The question is… how can we foster our personal creative adaptability to enhance our wellbeing?

The answer…. through intentional practice.

Intentional Cognitive, Behavioural, and Emotional Practice

Coming back to my story – I made my first international move from Boston, MA, to Sydney, Australia. I had all the excitement in the world and an openness to soak up change. But I don’t believe I gained real creative adaptability until I understood the practices I gained in therapy. So, it’s no surprise that potential intentional practices to foster creative adaptability are linked to therapeutic practices.

  1. Utilise CBT practices: focusing on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) approaches is one way of fostering creative adaptability. By becoming aware and intentionally focusing on and working with unhelpful thoughts, you can learn to create new perspectives and ideas with your thinking.
  2. Practice ACT actions: This is my go-to approach and one I would recommend you learn about. ACT teaches how to foster psychological flexibility so that we pause in the moment before reacting, giving us the ability to respond (behaviorally) within situations. We are adapting in the moment, creatively coming up with a new behaviour or response before taking action.
  3. Dramatic Practices and Exercises: When I looked into the background of the author, Hod Orkibi, I found his work on the expression of creativity. He brings to the forefront interventions used in psychodrama and drama therapy sessions as they encompass “exploration of thoughts and feelings, as well as behaviour role-play”. (Azoulay and Orkibi, 2015Orkibi and Feniger-Schaal, 2019Feniger-Schaal and Orkibi, 2020) — potentially building awareness on how to respond to change. He mentions the role reversal technique (in which a client takes on the role of another person) and how it promotes perspective-taking and empathy, which may also help replace old maladaptive thoughts and feelings with new adaptive ones.
  4. Intentionally work on your Self Regulation: self-regulation can provide the opportunity to generate new emotions and “behavioural modifications to act in a way that is better adapted to the demands of the situation.”
  5. Become Aware: If all of this psycho chat drives you mad, don’t do any of it. Just become aware of when you can creatively develop a new thought, idea, or action. Practice with a habitual action, like taking a shower and apply a different action. By generating new ideas in situations that may be stressful or uncomfortable, you are harnessing your creative adaptability.

Start Anywhere!

For the first 4 years I lived in Sydney, I constantly used #4 as my creative adaptability intentional practice. I was very well aware that I was different. I held different beliefs, I had a different accent, and although I spoke English, the dialects and slang use were very different to what I knew. I found myself constantly self-regulating to adapt and fit in.

BUT it wasn’t until I went through therapy where I learned all the tools and techniques CBT and ACT offer. This is what fostered my creative adaptability to go on and live in other countries and embrace change.

Try any of the practices outlined here and go create new ideas, perspectives and thoughts. Go create new behaviour and actions. And go generate new emotional responses. All of this creative work fosters creative adaptability, which, I believe, provides you with a “personal protective factor” and ultimately enhances your overall wellbeing.

Go get ‘em!

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