Deadlines. Marketing. Sales. Reviews. Social media.
There’s no shortage of stress in a writer’s life. In addition to all we have to keep up with, there’s the inevitable emotional roller coaster.
Agent signs with you. Up! Publishers don’t bite. Down. Publisher signs. Up! Bad reviews. Down. Good reviews. Up! Writer’s block on your next story. Down.
Through it all we keep plugging, but then there are the existential questions such as, “Is all this worth it? Does my writing matter? Is this really what I’m supposed to be doing?”
We all have lives to live outside of our writing, as well, and for most of us, stress is a frequent visitor there, too. Illness in the family, financial issues, job concerns, child-rearing challenges, and more can make life not only difficult, but sometimes, nearly impossible.
In the middle of it all we’re called to create. The problem is that stress—of which there is a lot in today’s world—destroys creativity.
We have scientific studies to prove it.
Yet we can’t eliminate all the stress in our lives. So what can we do?
We can become very smart about how to deal with it.
How Stress Destroys Creativity
We know stress isn’t good for our physical health. Research has linked it with headaches, chronic inflammation, depression, reduced immunity, asthma, digestive disorders, infectious disease, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.
Science now tells us, however, that stress is just as bad for our mental health, and in particular, our ability to be creative. In a late 1990s study, for instance, researchers looked at the relationship between stress and creativity, and reported strong negative correlations.
The higher the stress level, the lower the creativity.
In a 2002 study, researchers analyzed more than 9,000 daily diary entries from people who were working on projects that required high levels of creativity. They found that stress, in the form of time pressure, resulted in less creative results.
“When creativity is under the gun,” the authors wrote, “it usually ends up getting killed.”
A few years later, in 2009, researchers found that chronically stressed rats could no longer think in their usual cunning matter, and instead fell back on familiar routines and rote responses—the exact opposite of creativity.
They also observed actual changes in the brain. Areas associated with goal-directed behaviors shriveled, while those associated with habit formation flourished.
In other words, the rats exposed to chronic stress kept doing the same things and getting the same results—even if those results weren’t moving them any closer to their goals (usually, food).
Rick Hansen, Ph.D., a California-based neuropsychologist and author of Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time, told Forbes reporter Judy Martin:
“As ten-thousand studies have shown, when you are chronically stressed, you’re less able to be at your best. Particularly when you’re talking about a knowledge economy which really places a high premium on creativity.”
Stress Hijacks a Writer’s Brain
The problem is that stress hijacks our higher brain functions, so that like the rats, we are forced to revert to habitual responses. As the body is flooded with stress hormones, learning, memory, attention span, and our ability to focus are all affected.
You know how it is. It’s when you’re in the “zone” that you produce your best work—and that’s not during stressful times. That’s when you’re able to relax and let your brain waves slow down enough to allow you to enter that other world where your characters live.
Stress is also extremely distracting. If you’re worried about your mother’s health or your ability to pay next month’s rent, you have less mental energy to put toward your creative work.
A 2005 study found that even viewing a stressful video clip—such as a scene from Saving Private Ryan vs. a scene from Shrek—could affect creative thinking. Those that viewed the less stressful Shrek scene answered correctly on a word-association task 39 percent more often than those who watched the more stressful Saving Private Ryan scene.
5 Ways to Rob Stress of Its Destructive Power
If stress is so damaging to this creative ability of ours, how can we protect it?
Fortunately, there are a lot of options. Below are five of the most researched and effective.
1. Get creative.
This may seem counterintuitive, but studies have shown that creativity actually reduces stress!
Of course if you’re stressed to begin with, you’re likely to have trouble writing. The solution? Turn to another less challenging creative pursuit. Think knitting and crocheting, crafts, painting, drawing, playing a musical instrument, scrapbooking, woodworking, and even gardening.
Spending time pursuing any type of creative activity—even creating a collage of where you want to be five years from now–can help relieve stress. Better yet, it taps into your creative brain, and may be just what you need to get into your writing again.
2. Do something that makes you happy.
A positive brain is a more creative brain.
And stress is usually perceived as negative. That means you need to do something to get happy again.
“When people were feeling more positive,” said Harvard Business School professor and author of The Progress Principle Teresa Amabile, “they were more likely to be creative.”
How do you make yourself feel happy? However you can. Maybe it means getting away for the weekend, going out for a nice dinner, listening to some of your favorite music, spending time with a pet, or talking with a close friend. These are easy things to do, but we often don’t allow ourselves to so-called “luxury.”
We often feel guilty.
We have work to do. There’s so much going on. Surely we can’t spare the time for such indulgences now!
But stressful periods are when we most need to step aside and take care of ourselves. Look in the mirror and say: How can I make myself happy today? Then do it.
Your creativity (and your health) depends on it!
3. Incorporate a stress-relieving activity into your daily routine.
If you don’t have some sort of stress-relieving activity you do every day, it’s time to get one.
We’re talking things like yoga, tai chi, meditation, art therapy, counseling, sports, dancing, journaling, coloring (the current popular trend!), deep breathing—the options are numerous, but it’s important to pick one and commit to doing it regularly.
If you can do a stress-relieving activity before writing, even better. I love to spend 10-15 minutes reading the work of great authors before I sit down with my laptop. I usually walk at the same time—a great stress reliever—and read out loud. The activity calms me down and gets me into the writing mode.
Choose what works for you. The important thing is to do it regularly. A daily stress-relieving activity can keep the pot from boiling over, so to speak.
4. Watch your diet.
Caffeine, alcohol, junk food, sugar—they all exacerbate stress.
On the other hand, good-for-you stuff like fruits and veggies can help you cope. A 2012 study, for instance, found that green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale can boost feel-good brain neurotransmitters and can actually reduce risk of depression.
Foods with the calming amino-acid tryptophan—like turkey, nuts, eggs, oats, fish, and beans—increase happiness and well being while reducing feelings of irritability. Yogurt is another good choice as the probiotics help balance the brain-gut connection. One study found that women consuming yogurt handled stress better than those who didn’t.
Or you can sit down with a nice cup of tea. It typically has less caffeine than coffee, and contains healthy antioxidants that can reduce anxiety and promote calm.
Bottom line—when we’re stressed, the brain often craves sugary, fatty foods that only make it worse. Stack your cupboards and refrigerator with healthier options to help you cope and to protect your creativity.
Exercise is a proven stress reliever.
In fact, it may be the best option we have.
Exercise naturally produces endorphins in the brain that make us feel good. It also helps us sleep, which is often more difficult when we’re stressed, and lack of sleep contributes to more stress.
Exercise elevates mood—that positive feeling we need to create.
It even helps “train the brain” to better manage stress. According to a study out of Princeton University, regular exercise changed the brain so that it reacted less negatively to stress, actually shutting off communication with the area of the brain that regulates anxiety.
According to Harvard University:
“The mental benefits of aerobic exercise have a neurochemical basis. Exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators.”
The American Psychological Association adds that people who exercise regularly have lower rates of anxiety than sedentary people, and also have better communication between the brain and body that allows them to build up an increased resilience to stress.
You don’t have to run a marathon or go to the gym. It can be as simple as taking a daily walk. The important thing is to do something you enjoy so you’ll stay with it on a daily basis.
Creativity Leads to Long Life
The good news is, if you can learn how to manage your stress and stay creative, you’re more likely to live a longer, healthy life.
This, according to a 2012 study. Researchers looked at data from over 1,000 participants, and found that out of many characteristics, including intelligence and overall openness, only creativity decreased mortality risk.
Surprisingly, researchers stated that one of the reasons could be that creative people are better able to handle stress!
“Creative people may see stressors more as challenges that they can work to overcome rather than as stressful obstacles they can’t overcome,” researchers wrote.
Sounds like a great approach to me.
How do you keep stress from interfering with your creativity?
Sheldon Cohen, et al., “Chronic stress, glucocorticoid receptor resistance, inflammation, and disease risk,” PNAS, April 17, 2012; 19(16): 5995-5999, http://www.pnas.org/content/109/16/5995.
Reg Talbot, et al., “Creativity and Stress,” Creativity and Innovation Management, December 1992; 1(4):183-193, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-8691.1992.tb00052.x/abstract.
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Judy Martin, “Employee Brain on Stress Can Quash Creativity and Competitive Edge,” Forbes, September 5, 2012, http://www.forbes.com/sites/work-in-progress/2012/09/05/employee-brain-on-stress-can-quash-creativity-competitive-edge/#6a43c8e61500.
Eduardo Dias-Ferreira, et al., “Chronic Stress Causes Frontostriatal Reorganization and Affects Decision-Making,” Science, July 31, 2009; 325(5940):621-625, http://science.sciencemag.org/content/325/5940/621.abstract.
Natalie Angier, “Brain is a Co-Conspirator in a Vicious Stress Loop,” New York Times, August 17, 2009; http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/18/science/18angier.html?_r=3&em.
“Stress Interferes with Problem-Solving; Beta-Blocker May Help,” The Ohio State University, 2005, https://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/strsbeta.htm.
Lindsay Funston, “12 Superfoods for Stress Relief,” Health.com.
Karen Weintraub, “How Creativity Can Help Reduce Stress,” Boston Globe, April 24, 2015, https://www.bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/health-wellness/2015/04/24/how-creativity-can-help-reduce-stress/iEJta3lapaaFxZY6wfv5UK/story.html.
Morgan Kelly, “Exercise reorganizes the brain to be more resilient to stress,” Princeton University, [Press Release], July 3, 2013, https://www.princeton.edu/main/news/archive/S37/28/70Q72/index.xml?section=topstories.
“Exercising to Relax,” Harvard Health Watch, http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/exercising-to-relax.
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