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Creative Displacement

New Survey Documents the Value of Creative Displacement

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At the core of addiction is the reaction to stressful situations.

Stress is caused by the conflict between what we would like to happen and what is actually happening. The difference between these two states results in a buildup of tension. The tension is resolved through displacement. 

The tension is displaced through a stress-relieving activity. For smokers, this activity could be smoking a cigarette; for alcoholics, this activity could be getting drunk; for drug addicts, the activity might be shooting up; for gamblers, it might be playing the slots.

Different activities, same source: displacing the tension resulting from stressful situations.

Not all methods for displacing tension are harmful. Engaging in sports activities can displace the tension, enjoying hobbies can displace tension, and even such simple things as deep breathing or drinking a glass of water can displace tension.

A new survey from the American Psychiatric Association helps document the impact of creative activities on mental health. The Morning Consult survey of 2,000 adults was conducted in June of 2023. Participants were asked which activities they used to relieve stress and anxiety, and here are the top choices:

  • Listening to music: 77%
  • Solving puzzles: 39%
  • Singing or dancing: 25%
  • Drawing, painting or sculpting: 24%
  • Crafting: 19%
  • Creative writing: 16%
  • Attend concerts: 15%
  • Create online content for fun: 14%
  • Play a musical instrument: 13%
  • Visit an art museum: 9%
  • Other activities: 11%

One key finding of the survey is the correlation between participating in creative activities and maintaining mental health. Those who self-categorize their mental health as “fair” or “poor” participate in creative activities at a much lower rate (46%) compared with those who self-categorize their mental health as “excellent” (71%). Unfortunately, the survey results do not specify which creative activities most strongly correlate with “excellent” mental health. While passive activities such as listening to music or watching TV may relieve stress, displacement of stress to another activity is ideal with active engagement, like playing the guitar or shooting hoops.

Creative activities can be a creative way to displace the stress that might otherwise tempt a person into substance abuse or other harmful activities. Stress is often caused by dwelling on problems and it’s hard to dwell when you’re engaged in a game or a contest or a creative pursuit.

The BrainWeighve weight loss app designed by Dr. Robert A. Pretlow, the publisher of AddicitonNews, helps users manage stress in the moment by providing a self-generated list of safe alternatives to indulging a passing urge. Over time, it is possible to substitute drinking water for drinking alcohol, deep breathing for smoking a cigarette, and bird watching for casino gambling.

Over the longer term, it pays to cultivate creative hobbies and to change them up from time to time. Hobbies such as reading, listening to music, playing an instrument, doing crossword puzzles, gardening, walking, cooking — and many more — bring lifelong relief to stressful days and stressful weeks.

Written by Steve O’Keefe. Published November 20, 2023.


“Creative Arts: Enhancing Mental Health and Well-being,” American Psychiatric Association, July 2023

“New APA Poll: Americans Who Engage in Creative Activities at Least Weekly Report Better Mental Health,” American Psychiatric Association, July 2023

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