Friday, May 25, 2007

Writing and Stress

Stress. I don’t know a single person that doesn’t suffer from it. For some, it might stem from a single situation, for others, it might be a way of life. Sadly, in our world, it’s also unavoidable.

Stress, whether it’s emotional, psychological or physical can cause a variety of ailments; headaches, digestion trouble, sleep disruption, muscle tension and aches, anxiety, trouble making decisions, confusion, emotional over-response and mood swings. Long term stress can result in high blood pressure, ulcers, increased allergic symptoms, asthma flare-ups, weight changes, suppressed immune system and migraines to name a few.

In addition to physiological illnesses, it can keep us from achieving our goals. When our lives are consumed by stress, we often lack the energy to focus on our dreams. During times of worry and tension, my writing productivity has waned, and sometimes, stopped altogether. However, we can take steps to decrease our response to stress. In controlling our responses, we can lessen the effect it has on us. There are several, easy ways to counteract stress.

Anything that interrupts the physiological stress response can help to short circuit it. Here are some suggestions.

Exercise: Writing is a sedentary activity. Sitting still can exacerbate the effects of stress. Exercise can counteract this. Physical exertion releases the tension our body tries to hold onto. Get up and move at least once an hour. Dance. Do jumping jacks. Stretch. Do yoga. Go for a walk. A caveat - walking to the fridge or pantry is not considered a stress relieving activity. Often, we use food as comfort. It can soothe us when we’re stressed. However, it also encourages poor eating habits and transference. Instead of dealing with our stressors in a healthy way, we’re stifling them with food. Better to go out and weed your garden than gorge on Twinkies and potato chips.

Changing Bad Habits:
Caffeine. I don’t know a writer who doesn’t crave it. Research has shown us that heavy caffeine intake actually stimulate the sympathetic portion of the autonomic nervous system, also known as the fight or flight response. When people feel hyped up from caffeine stimulation the body releases adrenaline, which in turn raises the blood pressure, the heart rate and respiration. The body looks for a stressor to fight off or run from, but it isn’t able to do either with chemical stimulation. Most modern stressors can’t be dealt with the fight or flight response so our bodies live in a chronic state of arousal, and not the good kind! A note – for some people, highly processed and refined foods affect the body in the same way as caffeine. Studies have shown that our bodies metabolize these foods far less efficiently, causing a host of other health related problems.

Bedtime. It doesn’t sound like much, but go to bed fifteen to twenty minutes earlier each night – work up to a half an hour to an hour. Our bodies need a certain amount of time each night to naturally wind down in order to fall asleep. The earlier bedtime will help reprogram your body and give you little more sleep, which will, in turn, help you deal better with stressors. Avoid exercising at least three to four hours before bedtime. You may also want to consider avoiding caffeine and refined sugars at this time, as well. I’ve never had a problem with caffeine before bed, but our bodies change as we change, often becoming more sensitive to these stimulants.

Aromatherapy: Certain scents can trigger a chemical reaction in the brain that can further relaxation and stress release. What smells good to some people might smell like compost to another. Personally, I find the combination of Sandalwood and Vanilla very soothing. Some traditional scents used for relaxation and stress release are: Apple, Bergamot, Broom, Chamomile, Catnip, Frankincense, Freesia, Gardenia, Jasmine, Lavender, Lemon Balm, Lily, Lily of the Valley, Meadowsweet, Myrrh, Plumeria, Rose, Sandalwood, Spider Lily, Stephanotis, Tuberose, Water Lily, White Ginger, Wood Aloe and Ylang-ylang. This list is by no means exhaustive. Experiment. See what works for you.

Aromatherapy + Warmth = Relaxation: A neck wrap is one of the best tools a writer can have at his or her disposal. The combination of warmth and scent can ease some of the physiological effects of stress. Filled with rice and herbs, these are better than a heating pad to loosen stiff muscles. Warm it in the microwave oven and let the relaxation begin. You can find them at department stores, boutiques, health food stores and gift shops. You can also make your own.

The simplest method is to fill a knee sock with rice and lavender – making sure that it’s still flexible enough to drape around your neck and over your shoulders. Stitch the opening shut and you have a neck wrap. You can also make a tube out of fabric and fill that. Or you can cut out a semi-circle – think of it as a large upper case “C.” Sew and fill with rice, herbs, buckwheat or whatever other substance feels comfortable draped around your shoulders. Re-warm as needed.

Meditation: The first and easiest path to meditating is focusing on our breathing. Studies have shown that centering on, and adjusting, our breathing can lower blood pressure, heart rate and other physical stress responses. Meditation actually changes the brain’s waves from Beta (waking thought and activity) to Alpha (heavily relaxed to light trance) and eventually, Theta (deep relaxation/trance state.)

Breathing: Close your eyes. For a slow count of five, breathe in through your nose. Hold the breath within your lungs for a count of five. And finally, exhale through your mouth for another count of five. Repeat as necessary until the urge to cry, scream or strangle someone has passed.

While practicing breathing techniques, it can be helpful to visualize a place or activity that feels peaceful to you. For example, I picture sitting by a stream that runs through a shady forest. I try to capture the sights, (sunlight dappling through the leaves) sounds (the soft brush of branches against leaves in the breeze) and smells (the thick, sweet scent of sap.) I have a friend who loves to go to the park and swing on the playground swing set. She imagines herself flying, back and forth through the air as she practices her breathing.

Music: If visualizing doesn’t work for you, find music that soothes you, and listen to it while doing your breathing exercises. It can be helpful to listen to your meditation music while you’re writing. After some practice with meditation, the music can act as an aural cue, helping your brain to produce those relaxed alpha waves more easily. This slight shift of consciousness can enhance your writing, muzzling your internal critic and setting your Muse free to do her work.

Guided Imagery: Another helpful meditation technique is the use of guided imagery tapes or CDs. The typical guided imagery will include relaxing, background music as well as a narrator who guides the listener, coaching him or her through the stages meditation process. The narrator’s suggestions serve as cues to focus the listener’s attention so the mind is doing more than listening to music. Listening to the imagery with closed eyes reduces awareness of the physical surroundings as well as of bodily sensation. This is why guided imagery is often taught to patients as part of a pain management regime.

There are several, wonderful instructor/authors I’d like to recommend. Caroline Myss, Wayne Dyer and Clarissa Pinkola Estes. Their guided imagery tapes and CDs can be purchased at and

Cognitive Restructuring: Reframing the way we look at things can change how we interpret events and, in turn, how we respond to them. For example, my sister didn’t get in to the college of her choice. After feeling disappointed and angry, she chose to look at this experience in a new light. Attending her second choice will afford her different opportunities than the other school – opportunities not available at her first choice. Now, she’s looking forward to the new experiences to come. An example from the writing world would the dreaded “R” word – Rejection. We can look at rejection as the end, or we can view it as a chance to improve our work and make it the best we possibly can. This is not to say that we should take a “Pollyanna” attitude toward disappointment. However, finding the positive aspects in any given situation helps us to better deal with the stressors of those circumstances.

It’s a sure bet that none of us will ever be stress free. But, using these techniques, we can lessen the effects of stress in our lives. A decrease in stress can help increase our writing productivity, something most of us would like to see happen. Do you have other methods of dealing with stress? Please feel free to share them!

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