Stress & Burnout—How to Get Your Creative Mojo Back

Image courtesy of Eflon via Flickr Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Eflon via Flickr Creative Commons

The past few years have been just brutal. My grandmother who raised me was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and it was just one crisis after another and it just never…freaking…let…up. I felt like I was in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu being crushed all the time, but not allowed to tap out. Then, on Independence Day (ironically) my grandmother finally passed away.

I really never appreciated how much her declining health was impacting me until she was gone. It was like I was wandering around in a fugue state only aware that my knees hurt. Then out of nowhere a hand lifted off the 500 pound gorilla and I could breathe again. I never noticed the gorilla, never noticed the lack of air, only the knee pain.

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So now I am in the process of rebuilding. I plan on taking a couple days off to just rest and get away from all the work that piled up for me to do. Hit my reset button, so to speak. But I figured blogging about this might help some of you who are struggling, too.

Burnout can come from all directions—family, job, marriage, illness, death. Sometimes we are not even aware how hard we have been hit until something radical changes (for me, a death). We are the frog being slowly boiled alive, oblivious that maybe we should jump out.

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.

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.

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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.

Welcome to Stress Brain

This is me right now *head desk*

This is me right now *head desk*

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.

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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 stupid.

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!

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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? Have you been through caregiver burnout? How did you recover? Hey, I am a work in progress too 😀 .

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JULY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

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Upcoming Classes

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  1. Reblogged this on Siefken Publications.

  2. I needed this! Thank you so much:)

    • ShawnMc on July 27, 2016 at 11:46 am
    • Reply

    “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.” No plotting needed, I know right where to put you! 😉

    • jillhannahanderson on July 27, 2016 at 11:48 am
    • Reply

    I don’t think I’ve ever written this to you before, even though I think it many times reading your blogs. You are flippin hilarious and witty! Yes, sometimes your blogs are about sad things (like your grandmother passing) but your sense of humor and will to pick yourself up and plow ahead always comes through on your blog.
    Great job!

  3. I am definitely there! Job stress is overwhelming right now. One of those “Need a break, but can’t take a break or too much work will ipile up and it will get worse” moments :/ hoping to relax the weekends. Sigh…

  4. I am absolutely not comparing my dog with your grandma, just the situation….he suffered from cancer and for 7 months i cooked him food three times a day and cared for him.he needed to go out a few times at night. I did not realize how tired i was until he passed away. I was caring for him and my ill daughter while i mysellf was dealing with a muscle disease and lyme disease. I had no idea how tired i was until it hit me how tired i was. Reset button def in order,

  5. ‘Respect stress’ – that sounds simple but is so important. It helps to be more understanding with yourself – I always try to treat myself like a friend, and be kind, and tell myself to do the things I’d suggest to a stressed-out friend… I also remind myself to give the same courtesy to stressed-out strangers rather than letting them rile you – you never know whose house is on fire.

  6. Reblogged this on Jeannie Hall Suspense and commented:
    For those stressed out souls out there…

  7. Reblogged this on Mystery and Romance and commented:
    How Stress affects a writer’s brain…

  8. OMG I needed to see this today! I’m on caregiver burnout and school is about to start at work, so I’m bombarded and stressed out from that. It’s not like I don’t know these things you’ve addressed; I’ve studied psychology. But sometimes we forget; the stress turns us around until we don’t know which direction we’re facing, and that freaks us out even more. I just need to remind myself to do the meditation and go for the walks. Pokemon GO! and dog sitting are helping with at least one of those. 😉 Thanks!

  9. I so needed this today!

  10. I am a teacher and will be going back to the race against time in a few weeks. I get stressed just thinking about how I will make time to write once I have all those essays to grade–yikes! Time to take a walk–exercise works for me too.

  11. I needed a “love” button for this blog post because it was perfectly timed. First, I wanted to say how sorry I was to hear about everything that you’ve had to deal with lately. Sometimes, when we get caught up in our own stress, we forget that others might be in that same foxhole with us. I hope that you are feeling better now.

    Secondly, I’ve been feeling for a long time now that maybe I’m not meant to be a writer. I’ve been struggling to write even Facebook posts, and don’t even get my started on how I’m struggling with my blog. *hangs head in shame*

    Then the other day, I was watching “Anne of Green Gables,” and it occurred to me, maybe I need to take a break and just journal – or as you suggested free write – for a little while and rediscover my voice again. I think that all the stress we have been dealing with lately has really smothered my creative side where it almost got to the point where I was resenting my writing time. I don’t want to loose a side of me that feels almost necessary as breathing, but I think I need to reevaluate why I was writing to begin with….because it’s who I am. Because it helps me sort things out. Because it has always been my escape. And I think I had forgotten all about that while trying to rush after a professional writing career. You know?

    So, thank you again, for posting this today – it was exactly what I needed to hear! *sends hugs*

    1. Nicole- I totally was feeling similar about writing. After I journaled about my feelings and discussed with myself why I wanted to write certain things and NOT write other things, I was able to get back to work on the women’s fiction novel I’m writing. A different kind of writing is the perfect way for writers to decompress.
      Good luck to you!

      1. Thanks Sharon! I’m kind of surprised that I was having such a hard time letting go of what I “thought I had to write,” you know? But the journey is half the fun, right?

  12. Kristen, I am so sorry for the loss you are experiencing, and hopeful for your full recovery into
    creative adventures after all the stress.

    Thank you for sharing this. I think I’m in burnout right now. As a caregiver of a loved one with Alzheimer’s, and several other things going on in my life, I’ve been in such a funk I didn’t even really acknowledge it as burnout. It’s not as if I am doing it all alone, I have lots of help with the caregiving, but we each handle things in our lives differently and some individual things can’t be shared, or even understood by others.
    What I AM sharing tomorrow morning is this post on my blog – – for my readers to benefit from, and I’m including a link back here to your blog.
    Thanks again.

  13. Take care of yourself. Everything will get done, but most of it doesn’t have to get done right now.

  14. I so loved this blog Kristen – I’ve been in the middle of a nasty law suit as well as dealing with severe back pain waiting for surgery. Fortunately, I have amazing people around me who said – “you need to get away”. So, I am. Going cruising – yep – 8 days, 7 nights aboard a luxury cruise line where my bed and food follow me wherever I go. I don’t even have to fly anywhere (stressful). I get on the ship in Vancouver and get off in Vancouver (roundtrip). And, I’m taking my computer with me to write. Will be doing a lot of the “freewriting” you spoke about with no concern for grammar, making sense, staying in character, etc. Is it time yet?

  15. Reblogged this on Erotic Vampire.

  16. With your permission, would love to share this post on my “Write On” blog at You are wittily spot-on. The meanest trick that chronic stress plays on me is its insistence that I mustn’t stop: if I just keep doing more and spinning faster I’ll somehow fix everything and achieve peace. Wait . . . I think that’s another definition of insanity, isn’t it? 🙂

    1. Share away! ?

  17. I agree, writing is therapeutic if it isn’t writing that you HAVE TO DO however, when under stress I agree that getting away and accepting that I need a break is often exactly what I need to get productive again.

  18. My Dad lived with us for the last years of his life, and he had mild dementia. It was not until he was gone that I realised I’d been suffering from low grade depression for the same number of years. That ‘knee’ really did hurt. Be extra kind to yourself now because stress can affect your physical health as well as your brain. -hugs- Oh and great article. The pic of the cat made me laugh so much. 😀

  19. Thanks for taking the time to share this – your honesty and humour are much valued.
    I struggle with knowing what’s a reasonable expectation of myself: we’ve just bought a house and are trying to get necessary repairs done so we can move in. Stressful, yes, but at least I don’t have a job, kids etc on top of that. And all I’m getting done is my blog posts – no progress on the WIP for weeks. I don’t know if I should be pushing myself harder or going easy on myself or what!

  20. Respect Stress- ha! I need you to send that to my boss!

    When things get really stressful at work or at home, sometimes I’ll take a few minutes to just walk. At home, I hit the elliptical. At work, I’ll find a reason to go to the department on the other side of the building. I need to burn off those flight chemicals.

    The other thing I’ll do is write down the everything I have to do. Make a list. That way, the paper is holding the list of worries rather than my brain. I know this sounds silly, but it really works. And it makes it easier to see what really has to be done, what can be delegated and what might be able to wait.

    • ratherearnestpainter on July 27, 2016 at 7:22 pm
    • Reply

    I read Agatha Christie’s “Autobiography”. There was a point early in her career when she disappeared for a little over a week. Her car was found abandoned, and then later she was found in another town in a hotel, checked in under a different name. (Using her husband’s mistress’s last name, if I remember correctly.) It’s been studied, analyzed and criticised. She didn’t talk about that adventure directly in her autobiography, but she did mention the time. Her mother had passed away and she was having to go through the house and paperwork by herself while her husband was having an affair with his secretary. She mentioned needing to sign something and being unable to remember her name. A lot of people chalked the disappearance up to a publicity stunt, but she described – very much the way you do – the slow building up of stress until she broke, she had a nervous breakdown.

    1. My mum read her bio too. Wow, must have been a tough time!

  21. Kristin,
    I’m so sorry for the loss of your Grandmother and all the stress you have been under. Many people have no idea until they find themselves in those shoes, how exhausting caring for a loved one can be or the toll it can take on our minds and bodies. As the former director of Hospice, I encourage you to take all the time you need to regain your physical and mental strength. If writing helps wonderful, but sometimes we need to close the laptop and take long walks. My prayers are with you and thanks for always providing wonderful, thought-provoking posts. @sheilamgood at Cow Pasture Chronicles

  22. I loved this explanation. It makes so much sense. Oddly enough I’ve been encouraging people to look beyond freewriting as a remedy for blocks because it generally doesn’t work for me. And yet I keep hearing it as pretty much the standard response to writer’s block. When I get blocked I am usually able to pinpoint the problem (eventually) to lack of clarity around some part of the story, and the solution is to use suitable tools or exercises to clear the fog. I’m a big fan of understanding why you’re using a particular tool rather than trying any old stuff to see if it sticks. Now I can finally bring freewriting back into the fold as a good tool to use when the block is induced by stress 🙂

    I guess I must (mostly) manage my stress pretty well for me never to have realized that. Thank you for opening my eyes today.

    P.S. In my next life I want to come back as a cat.

  23. I feel like you jumped into my head and read my mind because this has been me recently! I can’t get any writing done and I can’t tell if my current project sucks or I just think it does because of stress. UGH! I’m off to work on my novella because it’s fun and relaxing and I’ll go crazy if I don’t get at least a little bit of writing done this week.

    1. Good luck!

  24. Reblogged this on Flynn Gray and commented:
    A very relatable post from Kristen Lamb about the negative effects of stress on your cognitive and creative abilities.

  25. I love reading your blog-posts, yet I almost never comment. You always manage to hit the spot, no matter what you write about. Thank you for always being relatable.

    I’m commenting now because I just wanted to say I’m sorry about your grandmother. My aunt had dementia and after my uncle died suddenly three years ago, she became my problem. They never had any children so there was no one else to deal with things. It was a major stress in my life as all the other cousins were too far away, too poor, too old, and so on. Just when it seemed like she was sorted out in a proper home and the lawyers were winding up my uncle’s estate, she died in her sleep one night and – exactly like you described it – the pain in my knees disappeared and I could stand up straight and breathe properly once more.

    Good luck with the freewriting and more power to your pen/keyboard!

  26. Sorry for your loss. I can definitely relate to many of the stress effects listed here, which is why I’ve made some life changes: getting into vegetarian cooking, learning Greek and writing free thought.

  27. Thank you for this post, I really needed it.

  28. Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog.

    • mcm0704 on July 28, 2016 at 3:34 pm
    • Reply

    So sorry for your loss, Kristen. And thanks so much for sharing this. I used part of it on my blog that will run on Friday and linked back. I think this is important for so many of us who have way too much stress going on right now.

  29. Reblogged this on Kate McClelland.

  30. Im so stressed out right now, and its so hard to get words out. When I do get words out and look at them again on the screen they feel like a jumble of words that doesn’t make any sense. This was so helpful and spoke to me so much. Im praying for you. Also, thank you.

  31. Boy was this a timely piece for me to read….I’m crying tears of joy that someone finally “gets me”….how accurately you just described what I’m going through and you don’t even know me. Thanks for “reading my heart”…

  32. Big hugs to you Kristen. You and your family are in my prayers.

    I’m hoping there are places in this post that you and others can relate to and discover something to soothe your body, mind or spirit. Apologies for the long post.

    My dad was sick for ten years. The last two years I went with my step-mother back and forth to the hospitals to be with my Dad who had heart problems and kidney issues. He’d be in the hospital in ICU for a week or so, then they’d place him in a regular room and release him. A week or two weeks would pass with him at home and the whole process began again. Since I’m on disability, I was thus forced into the role of helping my step-mom all the time, every day.

    This was exhausting physically, mentally and emotionally.
    I felt trapped and I resented my dad for making me feel guilty if I wasn’t there every single day. A migraine or a doctor’s appointment were the reason’s for me not being there and he (and my step-mom) still had an attitude about it.
    Those negative emotions started eating away at me like ravenous caterpillars.

    Dad’s stay-at-home time was just enough so I could write, edit and polish the contracted projects I had from the epubs I was with. The doctor ended up putting me on blood pressure medication.

    The last year Dad was sick, my step-mom was angry about him being sick and she tried to take it out on me.
    My Dad’s health habits and genetics lead to his heart disease, diabetes and in turn kidney problems.

    So, here are a few things to consider :

    **It is not your fault a person is sick and they do not have the right to be
    abusive to you or anyone else.

    **Guilt can be as sharp and heavy as a claymore. Please don’t fall into this trap.
    People have a way of projecting their failures and guilt to others so they don’t have to deal with what is going on inside them.
    Also, this is a power play. After my dad passed away, I cut contact with every family member who abused me and felt it was their right to manipulate me. It wasn’t an easy decision but I have peace now.

    **Writing new stuff was difficult. Once I got the contracted pieces finished I read, cleaned my office and did writing related things. The act of writing caused writer’s block for a time. Writing related work along with a bit of mentoring and teaching helped me quite a bit.

    **Sitting on the porch swing my terrier, listening to music, doing watercolors and art crafts all helped me heal. I believe my inner well was parched so there wasn’t anything available for writing. Giving my mind, body and heart the chance to purge the emotions and stress came in stages. I had to recover and then it would resume.

    **Be kind to yourself.
    Everyone deals with their grief at a different pace and in different ways.

    **Remember the good times. Maybe make a journal or scrap book of all the things you loved about that person and hand it down to your kids. Or, a cookbook and include stories surrounding the particular food or holiday.

    Hugs and prayers of comfort and peace to all of you!
    (Sorry again for the long post.)

  33. Reblogged this on Writer's Treasure Chest and commented:
    Stress and burnout? Here’s what to do!!

  34. Great post! Interesting stuff.

    Maybe you like to read the first bit of my first finished English novel:

    Any kind of remark will be highly appreciated.. 🙂

  35. One technique I have heard of is writing out all your worries and stress inducers until you can’t write any more. Save the document and then delete the document completely.

  1. […] Source: Stress & Burnout—How to Get Your Creative Mojo Back […]

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