Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Writers and Stress...

Putting your characters under stress and in stressful situations is considered good form- unfortunately, the same can’t be said if your characters (or plot or agent or editor etc) are causing YOU stress.

Stress and stressors are a part of everyone’s lives- including writers. Stress can have an extremely negative impact on mental and physical health as well as production levels (aka- stressing out about not getting things done causes you to get less done).

From WEB MD:

Stress that continues without relief can lead to a condition called distress -- a negative stress reaction. Distress can lead to physical symptoms including headaches, upset stomach, elevated blood pressure, chest pain, and problems sleeping. Research suggests that stress also can bring on or worsen certain symptoms or diseases.
Consider the following:
• Forty-three percent of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress.
• Seventy-five percent to 90% of all doctor's office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.
• Stress can play a part in problems such as headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, skin conditions, asthma, arthritis, depression, and anxiety.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) declared stress a hazard of the workplace. Stress costs American industry more than $300 billion annually.
• The lifetime prevalence of an emotional disorder is more than 50%, often due to chronic, untreated stress reactions.

Stress can mess up anyone, and especially folks who may be at home working alone. Or folks who are trying to work a day job and write. Or folks who are running a family and writing.

Some folks are very aware of the stressors in their lives, but choose to “live with them” or they feel they can’t do anything about them. Other folks really have no clue how many stressors they actually have.

My suggestion would be to keep a stress journal. Just for a week or so, write down everything that stresses you out- big or small. Even if you are aware of your stressors, you may still want to keep track of them, you may be surprised. Chronic stressors (that neighbor who always runs their leaf blower at 7:01 am) or acute stressors(opening that email from the agent who asked for a full), both types have the same bad outcome. Stress brings out different reactions in different folks, and what stresses out one person, may not even be a blip on the stress-o-matic meter for someone else.

After you’ve gotten a good idea of WHAT stresses you out, look at what you did about it. Did you ignore it and muster on? Use a coping strategy? If so was it a good one?

Understanding stressors can help address dealing with them.

Look at the big picture. Focusing on the minute details can lead to madness, or at the very least stress. Sometimes you need to back away from nitpicking things apart and look at the long run- aka your writing career. Each little step (no matter how small) towards your goal gets you there. Sometimes pulling back and looking at the entire image, also you to shake off stress caused by the “here and now”.

Adjust your standards. Perfectionism is a horrific disease, and one that plagues writers and most creative artists. But being perfect isn’t part of the human condition, even folks you may think are perfect- AREN’T. Therefore trying to hold oneself to too a high level of perfectionism, which is not realistic, is mentally ill. Yes- have goals. Yes- keep improving them. But develop the ability to see when you’re trying to be “perfect”, and step away from things when that happens.

Don’t try to control the uncontrollable. Knowing what is within your control, and what isn’t, goes a long way to helping weed out stressors. Have you done all that you can- AT THIS POINT IN YOUR WRITING LIFE- to ensure you’ve got your best work out there? Then don’t worry about it. You control your craft, sitting down regularly to write, improving your skills, and learning from others- you do NOT control the actions of agents, editors, readers, or critics.

Now, so far we’ve looked at what stress can do to you, you’ve made a plan to start your own stress log and hunt down your own stressors (and your reactions), and looked at ways you can cut down on stressors.

But it’s going to be there regardless, so you better have some good coping skills.

What NOT to do:
Here’s a list of what you SHOULDN’T be doing to reduce stress. These coping strategies may temporarily reduce stress, but they cause more damage in the long run:

Drinking too much
Overeating or undereating
Zoning out for hours in front of the TV or computer
Withdrawing from friends, family, and activities
Using pills or drugs to relax
Taking out your stress on others (lashing out, angry outbursts, physical violence)

Here’s what TO do ;).

Set aside relaxation time. I know, setting aside time to do NOTHING is very hard for most writers. It seems like there’s not enough time as it is, and now you need to give up more? But down time keeps the brain from exploding so make it a regular habit.
Connect with others. Writing is solitary, make sure you have friends, whether they be in your home town, or across the globe who you can talk to, vent at, celebrate with.
Keep your sense of humor. Find something to laugh about daily. Tag a funny website and visit it during breaks. Keep a cartoon book next to your desk.
Exercise regularly. Working out, whether it be walking, running, swimming, hiking, or monster hunting- will help reduce stress MASSIVELY. Use the time to ponder some major plot point problems and it’s a double win!
Eat a healthy diet. Yeah- junk food is quick and let’s face it- TASTY. But in the long run it’s going to make you tired and less focused. Make sure you have healthy snacks available for your writing sprints.
Reduce caffeine and sugar. Ah, the fall back trick for writers- sugar and caffeine and you can take over the world! Until you crash and things turn ugly. Cut down on both to keep more balanced and less stressed.
Avoid alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs. Ok folks- this should go without saying.
Get enough sleep. I know, “But I’m on DEADLINE”. Doesn’t matter- you need sleep, nuff said.

Now the best time to approach all of this, the logging of stressors and reactions, your own plans for ongoing stress reduction is when you’re not stressed. Like now :). Make sure to incorporate stress reduction actions regularly in your daily life- by the time you feel stressed, it may be too late.

Now will all of these things work for all people? No, but are they good guidelines to keep yourself happy and writing for many years to come? Heck yes.

What about you? What are some of your worse stressors? Best coping mechanisms?


  1. Awesome post. I'm getting the notebook down so I can write everything down. Great advice.

  2. Thanks Jeanne! I know a lot of it is common sense, but for me I need to think about it from time to time to keep myself on track :).

    Have a stress free day and thanks for commenting!

    Marie Andreas- can't log into blogger from work...

  3. Great advice. Some of my coping mechanisms are hanging out and chatting with my writer friends, walking in the park, yoga, drawing, and visiting museums. I also like keeping a journal.

  4. Good advice! Exercise is one way I relieve stress and talking to people who know what I am going through!

  5. Our writer's walking group definitely helps relieve some stress... I never realized how neurotic I could be until I signed a publishing contract! LOL It's scary!

    The best way for me to cope seems to be to keep my head down and write, but sometimes that's a tough order when I'm so distracted by worry... Frustrating!

    Great post Marie!!!

    Lisa :)

  6. Thanks for coming by Janet, Georgie, and Lisa!

    Janet- you have a great handle on what to do to keep things even- I wanna be you when I grow up!

    Excellent Georgie :) keep walking and talking- that helps me too.

    LOL- Lisa! Ok, you need more coping mechanisms! Actually, I think you do have them- you exercise, you socialize, you have your family and your singing. But, if writing is stressing, I'm not sure if hunkering down is the way to get rid of the stressor ;).

    Maybe have a severe talking to yourself (on paper) what would you say to a dear friend who was that stressed and worried about their writing? WRITE it out. Now read it to yourself. We say far meaner things to ourselves than we'd ever say to a friend- we need to say the good stuff too :).

    Thanks again ladies!