Stress and its dangerous physical effects are not a new topic. We know that high levels of stress increase the risk of heart attacks, lead to high blood pressure, ruin the immune system, and generally interrupt the ability to find pleasure in life. Recent research demonstrates how “deep” stress can penetrate us physically. I’ll avoid the technical term, but on-going stress hormones erode the protective covering of our DNA strands. The result is that under constant stress a person can physically age as much as six years for every year of life. Evidence of which can be seen in before and after pictures of every recent US president over the past few decades. Each one seems to have aged at an alarming rate.
For writers stress can be a circular occurrence. The stresses of life interrupt the writing process, the failure to write or write well creates greater stress which again further interrupts the writing process. Specifically, stress does take a physical toll on one’s ability to write. Writing block is literally “all in your head.” For many writers that block may have nothing to do with creativity or psychological attributes such as uncertainty, fear, or distraction. It may in fact be the result of temporary changes in brain chemistry and electricity.
Stress hormones served a very important purpose to early humans. The secretion narrowed the focus and revved up the body for flight or fight. During the stress process, the other important body functions go on stand-by. You have little reason to worry about cell reproduction or immune functions when running from a predator. In short time you will either escape and your system will return to normal or you will be captured, in which case, you’re dead. In today’s world—well most of it—we don’t deal with predators like lions, tigers and bears. Our bodies however still respond to psychological stresses. These are things that create the same effect, produce the same hormones, but that cannot be physically escaped. Things like paying bills, dealing with your boss, worrying over your children or traversing traffic. The problem is that because they are not easily escaped, the stress hormones continue on much longer than the two minute run from that lion. And over the long term, the damage mounts. But back to the brain and writing…
In studies of brain neurons, scientists discovered that these important connections actually decrease when exposed to long-term stressful conditions. The fewer connections—the muddier our thinking. In addition, other research suggests that when stress occurs the brain reroutes decision making and memory to the emotional center of the brain. So we are no longer remembering and storing facts, but instead we are recording emotions.
So image you sit down to write after a stressful day. Your brain is busy routing things to the emotional centers. You are in a state of “how I feel” and you don’t feel very well. Now imagine trying to concentrate on the words, the story, the plot line and character development. You can’t recall that “idea” you had or remember “how” you wanted to write that sentence. These frustrations lead to higher levels of emotion, aggravation, and frustration all leading to…more stress.
Of course when you don’t write, when you aren’t keeping your promise to “write 1,000 words a day” or to “finish the book” by the end of the month, the result is often to further beat yourself up and then to stress about being a “loser” or “lazy” or pick your self-depreciating adjective. It becomes a circular situation that does not reduce but instead increases your stress and leads to less productivity.
The answer is to first reduce and remove the stress before you write or in some cases just forgive yourself for choosing “not” to write that day. Until your brain returns to its “normal” function, sitting at the keyboard is likely to make things worse. Unless sitting at the keyboard is how you reduce stress.
There are two solutions to combat stress getting in the way of writing. The first is to create a writing ritual. A writing ritual is just a series of steps a person goes through to relax and prepare for the task. It may be room setting, burning candles or incense, organizing her desk or listening to a musical playlist. These techniques become psychological markers that “set” the brain’s mood and emotionally and mentally prepares the writer.
For especially stressful days, the ritual alone won’t always work because the writer’s mind may still be running with the day’s problems. Cognitive issues that have taken on emotional qualities. And emotional qualities that are now over shouting the fact check function of the brain. So unless your keyboard doubles as a “whack-a-mole” game, you probably need to defuse before you begin.
The obvious and most effective method is physical exercise. A trip to the gym, a long walk, push-up until you’re too tired to be upset, these all work well, but aren’t always possible. Some easier techniques can be just as effective. Spend twenty minutes reading a book (remember to stop and get to your own writing.) Meditate and force all the thoughts of the day out of your mind. Talk to a friend on-line for a while to clear your head, but keep the discussion light and try to laugh.The technique is less important than the outcome. And the goal of the outcome is to reset your brain to normal.
I default to two doctrines of thought to overcome the stresses of daily life. The first is from Buda – “All Suffering is the result of attachment.” We get too attached to the outcomes of things. Too preoccupied with worry and control and too fearful that the outcome may be bad. While preparation and goals are great, many of the things in life we can’t control. Often the best course is to not worry about the outcome, to let things unravel to their conclusion and expend energy on making changes we can make and not expending energy on worry over those we can’t change.
When things are at their worse and we are bound up in the emotional pain then there is always Corinthians: For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Nicely translated to “this too shall pass.”
In truth very few things that bother us today will have any importance a year from now, ten years from now or at the end of our life. Think back to something like your driver’s license. How important it was to “pass the test.” How grand life would be when you had the freedom to “drive.” How different and wonderful the world would be. The anticipation, the excitement, the long wait for test day, the worry over failure looks a lot like obsession for many teenagers.
Today driving is a given and many days you probably wish you couldn’t drive, and didn’t have a car payment, an insurance payment, a flat to fix or brakes to replace. That is most things in life—temporal and seldom worth the energy we give in worrying over them.
Writing is your passion. It is your escape. It should be fun and fulfilling. Don’t stress while doing it and certainly don’t stress over it, your sales, your less than 5 star review, or even the chance that you may “fail” as a writer. The only failure is the failure to try, the only thing really worth your stress is being chased by a hungry lion. The rest of it might be important, but not worth killing yourself over.