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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A WRITER’S LIFE: COPING WITH STRESS By Debra Holland, Ph.D




To write for a living exposes authors to the unique stress of this profession. This is not a job where you show up a 9 am, do the work someone assigns to you, and go home at 5 pm. Writers are creative people who aren’t allowed to just sit at a keyboard and enjoy wrestling with their muse (which in and of itself can be a stressful process.) They must also cope in the publishing world, regardless of their affinity for business.

Writing is a profession that requires you to multitask. To be a successful author, you must also be good at sales and publicity, accounting, networking, public speaking, dealing with the public, arguing with your editor with just the right degree of tact, plus many other things.

Writing requires the self-discipline to spend long hours at home on your computer, regardless of what you’d rather be doing. When you write, you cannot leave your job behind at the office. In fact, many authors have a day job, and still have to carve writing time out of the rest of their day. Even when you write full time, family, friends, household tasks, and other commitments pull at your time and energy. It’s not the same as having a structured schedule where someone else supervises you.

For most authors, they ALWAYS have writing hanging over their heads, either to meet a current deadline, or come up with new proposals/books. The “I should be writing” guilt is difficult to shake off, thus making it hard to completely relax. Story ideas or characters sometimes don’t leave you alone, not letting you sleep, or be completely present when you interact with others.

To be a published author means your cherished work is exposed to public scrutiny, not just with a small group of people, but nation, and maybe world, wide. Not only do you have the internal and external pressure to do your best work, but once it’s published, then anyone, no matter how ignorant, can criticize your book. Reviews, gossip, sales figures fly across the internet, phone lines, and other media. And since you can’t please everyone every time, there is ALWAYS someone who doesn’t like your book, and of course you get to hear or read their critique, which can be hurtful and shaming.

As an author, you release your book from your control, giving your creation to people who will not appreciate it in the same way you do, nor take the care which would lead to its best success. You don’t control much of the process--if and when it’s bought, how much you make on an advance, your print run, your covers, the amount of publicity the publisher does for you, etc.

For most authors, the writing income is uncertain. You must make financial decisions and budgets when you don’t know when the next chunk of money will come, and how much it will be. Worry about money is one of the top causes of stress, and the number one topic couples argue over.

Our profession is very competitive, yet we aren’t necessary the ones doing the competing. It’s the publishing professionals who are making the choices, and the consumers who buy our books. There are even lists to shout to the world where we stand. And even if you are not competitive by nature, it’s hard not to compare your writing output to someone who might be able to write more books a year than you, or feel a twinge of envy when you hear of someone else receiving a hefty advance or making the New York Times list, especially if you know your writing is just as good or better. Every time you read a good book, it’s difficult not to compare, and have self-doubts.

When you write for a living, you have to cope with fear. Fear that you can’t come up with a new story idea, write it well, meet your deadline, sell, make enough to live on.... The list goes on and on.

Negative rumors sweep through our industry. “The mid list is shrinking.” “Everyone’s having a hard time selling.” These are examples of some common rumors. It’s hard not to get caught up in other people’s fear. It’s easy to forget that even if the rumor is true, it doesn’t have to apply to you. You can still do well, even if no one else is.



THE EFFECTS OF STRESS


When your body activates the stress response, your brain signals the adrenal glands to release the hormones cortisol and norepinephrine, which pour into the bloodstream, releasing glucose and fatty acids to provide energy to the muscles, and trigger the flight or fight response. Your heart rate increases, and your blood pressure, breathing, and metabolism go into hyperdrive, all so you can react quickly in a high-pressure or threatening situation. Continuous exposure to stress hormones take a toll on the human body, mind, and spirit.

If you experience frequent or unrelenting stress, you might remain locked into a negative pattern of stress response. Your body cannot sustain this type of alertness without side affects, often leading to long-term damage. The relentless exposure to daily, chronic anxiety is the most toxic form of stress. Stress wears down your immune system increasing your risk of illness. Stress damages neurons in the brain, causing memory problems. Stress can lead to weight gain, interfere with sexual performance, and lead to heart attacks and premature death, peptic ulcer disease, and insomnia. Stress can lead us to act irrationally and make poor decisions. High cortisol levels result in increased appetite and fat deposits, typically in the cervical area, trunk and abdomen. In the average person, stress, poor nutrition, and sleep deprivation contributes to a decline in memory which starts around age 40.

A person under stress may experience negative psychological responses such as fear, anger, frustration, worry, depression, irritability or despair.

The antidote to stress is the relaxation response. During the relaxation response, your endocrine and nervous systems activate changes to slow your heart rate, improve your circulation and digestion, and relax your muscles. This counteracts the stress response.


10 LIFE TECHNIQUES TO HELP REDUCE STRESS


1. Take Deep Breaths. Breathing is the quickest way to trigger the body’s relaxation response. When you breathe, make sure your stomach expands and contracts. Also, relax your shoulders and the rest of your muscles.

2. Practice visualization. Change what you are thinking about to a peaceful scene. A walk on the beach or through a forest is good.

3. Process your feelings. Don’t suppress or act out your feelings. If you are in the middle of a stressful situation, and it’s possible to walk away, do so. Then take the time to think through what you are feeling. If you need more help with processing, then journal or talk to a close friend, family member, or therapist. Don’t make any decisions until you have done this. Once you’ve processed your feelings, you can decide how to handle the situation.

4. Avoid procrastination. Procrastination leads to anxiety and lack of self-esteem. Whatever project or situation you are avoiding continues to hang over your head. If you have to rush to finish the project at the last minute, it won’t be done well.

5. Eat Healthy. Stress can increase your appetite and make you crave foods that contain high calories and few nutrients.

It’s important to consume plenty of fresh vegetables, fruits, and fish.

Eat breakfast. Make sure your meal is low on sugars and high on protein.

Plan ahead so you have lots of healthy snacks that you can grab and munch. Nuts, protein bars (look for low carb, low sugar ones), veggie sticks (which you buy precut at the store), olives, cheese sticks, yogurt, peanut butter (have your own jar so you can take out a spoonful.)

Limit consumption of alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, and sugar. These cause the body’s stress response to become heightened. (Although an occasional dose of chocolate is ok.)

6. Drink plenty of water. Dealing with difficult situations depletes the body of water, leading to drowsiness, listlessness, and more stress.

7. Engage in pleasurable activities. Make time to do the things you love. By having a balance between work and leisure activities, you can experience greater satisfaction in your life.

8. Take charge (which is different from taking control.) Ask yourself what you can do to minimize the pressure. Make a list of steps. Take one at a time.

9. Take vitamins and minerals. Stress causes the body to burn more vitamins and minerals, specifically vitamin B complex, magnesium, and zinc; these nutrients are needed for blood sugar balance. When their levels drop, stress levels increase. Also, the adrenal glands require more vitamin C and pantohenic acid (part of the vitamin B complex) during stressful times.

10. Exercise at least three days a week.
Numerous studies have shown that moderate physical activity helps modulate mood, reduce stress, improve self-esteem, and program the brain for optimism instead of pessimism. Moderate exercise can help reduce the body’s production of cortisol during stressful times.

The greater your level of fitness, the less brain tissue you will lose as you age. Aerobic exercise pumps more blood to the brain, bringing vitalizing oxygen and nutrients to cells, slows the rate of normal brain-cell death, and increases the production of brain cells.

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5 Comments:

At 10:04 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

Dr. Deb,
Great advice! I have to say walking really helps me. I do it before I sit down at the computer, and I think it makes my brain work better--the writing time might be less but the quality is better.

 
At 10:33 AM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Great list, Debra!

Taking deep breaths and walking away when/if the tension gets high are two that really help me get through stressful situtations.

Exercise is a must for me! If I haven't done some form of exercise after a two days, I start to get grumpy.

 
At 2:46 PM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Wow, Dr. Deb, what a great primer on both the stresses of a writer's life and strategies to deal with stress. Beautifully written. I don't know a writer for whom this blog won't resonate! THANK YOU!

 
At 3:11 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

I always need to exercise more, but I'm a fiend for breakfast. Sometimes I have it twice. :D

 
At 10:42 PM, Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

LOL, Esri, on the two breakfasts! You're just channeling your inner hobbit!!

Wow, Dr. Deb, this a terrific post and one I definitely need to read and read again. I work a full-time very stressful job at the unhappiest place on Earth - yes, Wal-Mart! I have to fit my writing time in when I can and it is so hard because work wears me out. I need to be better organized about the things I do to facilitate my writing.

My CP and I were talking tonight about "Do you ever feel like you are wasting your time?" Definitely a stressful thought!! I often wonder how much of those thoughts is mental and how much is a simply a result of physical stress. Thanks for a great post!

 

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