Stress–The Creativity Killer

Feel like you have writer’s block? The words won’t flow and you think you might have worn out your thesaurus function looking for another word to say “the?” You might be your own worst enemy.

This has been an insanely stressful week for me. Most of the time my life is blessedly uneventful, but life is life and it can suddenly make you feel as if you got tossed in the spin cycle. The impact that anxiety has had on my body, mind, and ability to write has been tremendous. I haven’t met many of my writing goals and have suffered tremendous fatigue…so I figured I could use this experience for your benefit and turn it into a blog post :D.

Writing can be therapeutic. True. But, our creativity can also be one of the first casualties of too much stress, which makes sense when we really study what is happening to us when we’re under too much pressure.

Biology 101. Have you ever wondered why you can’t remember half of what you said after a fight? Wondered why it seems the only time you can’t find your keys is the day you’re late for work? Been curious why you said the stupidest comments in the history of stupidity while in your first pitch session with an agent?

Yup. Stress. But how does stress make perfectly normal and otherwise bright individuals turn into instant idiots?

Basically, the same biological defense mechanisms that kept us alive hunting bison while wearing the latest saber tooth fashions are still at work today. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work in tandem to regulate the conscious mind. Sympathetic gears us for fight or flight. Parasympathetic calms us down after we’ve outrun the bear…or opened that rejection letter.

In order for the sympathetic system to do its job effectively, it dumps all sorts of stress hormones into the body—DHEA, cortisol, adrenaline—to enable that super human strength, speed, and endurance required to survive the crisis. The problem is that the human body thinks in blanket terms and cannot tell the difference between fighting off a lion and fighting with the electric company.

The human brain is divided into three parts:

Cerebral Cortex—higher thinking functions like language, meaning, logic.

Limbic/Mammalian Brain—used for experiencing emotions.

Reptilian Brain—cares only about food, sex, survival.

I believe that writers (and people in general, for that matter), could benefit greatly by truly understanding stress and the affect it has on the mind and body. A brain frazzled to the breaking point physiologically cannot access information contained in the cerebral cortex (higher thinking center). Thus, the smart writer must learn to manage stress. 

And for the purpose of this blog, I am referring to bad stress so there is no confusion.

Modern life may not have as many literal lions and tigers and bears, but we are still bombarded with their figurative counterparts all day, every day. When stress hits, the body reacts within milliseconds. The sympathetic nervous system floods the body with hormones, increases heart rate, pulls blood away from digestive and reproductive systems, etc. And, most importantly, it diverts blood supply to the mammalian and reptile brain at the expense of the cerebral cortex. Apparently the body feels your witty repertoire of Nietzsche quotes are not real helpful in lifting a car off your child.

Thus, since the mammalian brain is in high gear, this explains why it is not uncommon to experience intense emotion while under stress. This is why crying, when confronted or angry, is very common. It is also why, once we calm down, we frequently wonder why we were so upset to begin with…mammalian brain overtook logic. This is also why the gazillion action figures your child leaves littered across the floor suddenly becomes a capital offense two seconds after you accidentally set dinner ablaze. Your emotions have taken front and center stage and knocked logic into the orchestra pit.

Another interesting point…

When the sympathetic nervous system prepares us for fight or flight, our pupils dilate. The purpose of this is to take in as much information about a situation as possible. The problem is that, although we are seeing “more” we are actually seeing “less.” The body is totally focused on the cause of the stress. This is why, when we’re running late to work, we see every clock in the house, but cannot seem to find our car keys.

This also explains how, once we take time to breathe and calm down, those keys have a way of magically appearing in the same drawer we opened 763 times earlier (while screaming at the kids, the dog, the cat, the laundry….). Poof! Magic.

Once we understand and respect stress, it seems easier to give ourselves permission to go on vacation or truly take a day off. It is a matter of survival. When bad stress piles up, we physiologically are incapable of:

1) Being productive.

That book proposal will take 15 times longer to prepare because you keep forgetting the point you were trying to make in the first place. 

We will wear out the thesaurus function on our computer looking for another way to say “good.” Face it. Stress makes us retarded.

2) Making clear decisions.

We won’t be making decisions from the logical part of our brain, so eating everything in the house will actually seem like a good idea.

3) Interacting in a healthy way with our fellow humans.

The new trees for your back yard might never get planted because your husband will be too busy plotting a way to bury you under them.

The most important lesson here is to respect stress. We must respect its effects the way we should alcohol. Why do we make certain to have a designated driver? Because when we’re sober, we think clearly and know that driving drunk is a very poor decision. Yet, the problem with alcohol is it removes our ability to think with the higher brain functions. Stress does the same thing. It limits/obliterates clear thought.

That’s why it is a very good idea to have people close to us who we respect to step in and 1) force us to back away and take a break, 2) convince us to take a vacation, get a pedicure, go shopping, hit the gym 3) give us a reality check, 4) take on some of the burden, 5) run interference with toxic people.

Like great violinists take great care to protect their hands, we writers would be wise to do the  same with our emotions and our minds. So when the stress levels get too high and you start seeing it seeping into your writing, it is wise to find a way to release stress. Take back the keys to your higher thinking centers! Take back that cortical brain!

Exercise, read, pray, meditate, watch a movie, laugh, do yoga, take a walk, work in the garden. Most of all…write. But do a different kind of writing. Write without a care in the world. Ever wonder why experts advise us to do freewriting when we hit a wall? Seems counterintuitive, but it is actually super smart when you think about the biology lesson we just had. If we can just write forward, without caring about the clarity or quality, we often can alleviate stress rather than fuel it. This freewriting can calm us back into the cortical brain so later, when our head is back on straight, we can go back and clean up the mess.

Which is exactly what I will do…after I go for a walk.

What are some ways you guys deal with stress? How do you overcome writer’s block?

Happy writing!

Until next time….


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    • Terrell Mims on August 27, 2010 at 4:25 pm
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    How do I deal with stress? I play a video game like: Grand Theft Auto IV, Resident Evil, or Halo. Something where I can do massive amount of violence and laugh like a villain while doing it. Most of the time I get into a “screw it” attitude. If it is stressing me out, screw it! I find that makes life more peaceful.

  1. Hi Kristen. Great post! When I snap, I turn off the phone, turn off the computer, turn off the HD TV, and I remember what life was like when a state-of-the-art electronic device was a TI-30 calculator. Then I lie down on my porch swing and listen to the leaves while contemplating the fact that if all of this effort is for naught, my family will still be proud of me.

  2. Interesting premise. Great information. But what of the creative souls who do their best work while at their deepest, lowest point in life, stressed to the max? Sometimes stress serves a great purpose shocking us into a deeper level of understanding. The best poem I ever wrote was when I felt like there would be no tomorrow.

    1. True Sandra, but if you think about it, you were basically freewriting. You let the emotions flow onto the page an d worked “with” stress not against it. What often happens is we are stressed, but then we are forcing the writing and being hypercritical instead of just letting go and letting all that come out with the idea that we will worry about edits later. Make sense?

  3. Thanks for the post — very timely for me 🙂

    I recently picked up THE THREE MINUTE MEDITATOR and while the title kind of stresses me out, in fact the book is a very down to earth, lovely exploration of how to incorporate mental relaxation and meditation into the middle of your stressful life. There’s a long discussion of the fight/flight reflex, and how meditation can take you out of that cycle.

    Taking a step back and unplugging from the Internet is also a big stress buster for me — though the Internet is an incredible resource (exhibit A: this blog!) there are times when all of the information overload just adds to the general stress level. I find that when I unplug I sleep much better and my mind can calm down more easily.

    Thanks again,

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