The Stress Key

Carrie Underwood

By Eric Maisel, Ph.D.

Life produces stress, the artistic personality produces additional stress, creating produces even more stress, and living the artist’s life is the topper!

You must learn how to deal with all these stressors — and how to deal with them effectively. Let’s begin by getting a clearer picture of what stress is and how it pertains to creative people in particular.

A stressor is anything, positive or negative, that makes a demand on us. Stress is our body’s physical and psychological reaction to those demands — on the physical level, it is a buildup of chemicals that keeps increasing as the stress persists.

The stress buildup is the reaction, and the demand (or stressor) is the cause. The demand can actually be positive.

Nicolas Cage in AdaptationImagine your editor calling you up and telling you that she wants a new book from you.

That’s lovely — unless you can’t see how on earth you can fit writing it into your schedule. It is lovely to be wanted, but her call still creates a demand — and stress.

Of course, the demands can be negative — bills coming due, pressure from your mate to make some money from your art, and on and on.

Life is full of demands of these sorts, both positive and negative, and hence it is also full of stress.

In the psychological literature you will hear about “good stress” (called eustress) and “bad stress” (called distress). But it isn’t the stress that is good or bad, it is the stressor. The stressor or demand may be positive, as in an editor wanting a book from us, but the stress produced nevertheless wears on our system.

We may desire a certain stressor like a book deal, but the accompanying stress is still a problem. The cause may be a blessing, but the effect is a challenge.

Some demands are more objectively demanding, and some demands are more subjectively demanding. If I am hanging by my fingernails to a window ledge, I am in a physically demanding situation that would tax anyone.

But what if, according to the terms of my contract with my publisher, I have ten months left to write my book? Do I need to construe that as a demand, a pressure, and a stressor, or can I normalize the situation and talk myself down from the stress I’m experiencing? — say, by telling myself that ten months is an adequate amount of time to write the book (if, of course, I sit down and write each day).

We can normalize or even reframe many demands as opportunities, and when we do, the associated stress vanishes. If you are holding it as lovely to make three calls today to gallery owners instead of as something dreadful that you wish you could avoid at all costs, you have changed the demand characteristic of the situation to one of opportunity.

Only you can do this work of changing certain aspects of your life from demands to opportunities.

Let me repeat this point: You are stressed when something feels demanding, and if you can make it feel enjoyable instead, it will not produce stress.

Even if we can’t reframe or “think away” a stressful situation, we can still take action. Even when a demand remains demanding, you can reduce your stress level by engaging in smart stress-reduction activities such as progressive relaxation techniques and deep breathing techniques.

By the same token, many demands must simply be met if we are to reduce our stress. If our book manuscript is due in two months, we need to get it done in two months to eliminate that stressor. If we don’t get it done, the stress will remain — with all sorts of new stress piled on top of it.

Actually meeting demands reduces stress. If you are demanding of yourself that you contact fifty galleries, and if you find that demand completely reasonable, then the only way to reduce your stress is to begin to systematically approach those fifty galleries — even if approaching them makes you anxious!

This is an important point: to reduce your stress you may have to increase your anxiety. Take a moment to let that sink in.

It can also make great sense in some situations to substitute one set of demands for another and one set of stressors for another.

Why? Because it may be that the old demands just couldn’t be met, leaving you perpetually under stress, but the new demands can be met, lowering your stress levels. Here’s an example.

Artist at workSay you’ve demanded of yourself that you earn your living by painting, but the bills are piling up and you are under a lot of stress.

It may be impossible to meet that demand right at the moment — that is, there may simply be no way to suddenly start earning your living by painting.

So you may have to do the thing that likely will disappoint and sadden you, that is, try to find some reasonable day job so that the demands of the bills get met, while at the same time redoubling your efforts to make a living by painting.

The pressure of needing to make money from painting will no longer amount to the same demand, now that your survival needs are being met. In this scenario you’ve reduced your stress without abandoning your dream — just as long as you don’t abandon your dream.

This is an example of changing the demand structure of your life by opting for demands that can be met, like the demanding nature of a day job, rather than a demand that can’t be met at this time, like earning your living by painting.

It’s also vital to think through which of your stressors you yourself are creating. If you are demanding that you love the next paragraph you write, that demand — and that stressor — is entirely on your shoulders.

Why not just show up and write and leave the appraising for later? By switching from attaching to outcomes to just showing up, you will reduce the nature and number of demands you are putting on yourself — and as a result you will lower your stress level.

It is much less stressful to write a book than to write a book and need it to be great every inch of the way. Needing it to be great as you write it creates a huge amount of stress — stress that may even prevent you from writing.

Remember that stress builds up. Say that you find writing your novel very demanding. That means that day one hundred of writing your novel will not be the same as day fifty of writing your novel — by day one hundred it’s likely that you are under more stress than you were earlier in the process.

This should help explain why projects stress us out — they remain demanding until the very end, and as we continue to tackle them the stress keeps building up in our systems. Therefore, you will need to be even more mindful of using your stress-reduction techniques as your work progresses — because the stress is building.

Because these points are so important, let me summarize them here:

1. A stressor is any demand made on us by the outside world or by ourselves.

2. Some demands can be normalized or even reframed as opportunities.

3. Even if we can’t get rid of a demand, we can still work to reduce our stress by using stress-management techniques.

4. If we can meet a given demand, we should do exactly that so that we can eliminate the stress. Sometimes trying to meet that demand will make us anxious, so we need to live with that reality. We may need to make ourselves anxious in order to reduce our stress.

5. We should think through whether it makes sense to substitute a new set of demands for our current set so that we can begin to deal with a demand that in fact can be met.

6. We must grow aware of the unnecessary and unhelpful demands that we put on ourselves — demands that increase our stress level and reduce our ability to perform.

7. Stress accumulates. Stress chemicals continue to build up in our systems if we don’t do anything to lower them. Therefore, the deeper we get into a creative project, the more we need to engage in our stress-management techniques.


Excerpted from Chapter 5, THE STRESS KEY, of the book Making Your Creative Mark: Nine Keys to Achieving Your Artistic Goals by Eric Maisel, Ph.D.

Copyright © 2013 by Eric Maisel. All rights reserved. Published here with kind permission of the author.

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Additions by site author Douglas Eby :

Creativity coach and therapist Eric Maisel, PhD “is the author of more than 40 books. His interests include creativity and the creative life, the field of creativity coaching which he founded, and natural psychology, the new psychology of meaning that he has recently been developing.”

[From profile on]

List of articles by Eric Maisel

Book: The Future of Mental Health: Deconstructing the Mental Disorder Paradigm
by Eric Maisel.

Related article: Gifted and Stressed – For many gifted and talented people, their sensitivity and “blessed unrest” may increase chronic arousal that leads to stress.

Top photo: Carrie Underwood: “At the beginning of my career, I used to have panic attacks. People were touching me, screaming—it made me really nervous. In public, I just get nervous. It’s a physical reaction, feeling like the walls are closing in.” – Photo from her Facebook page; quotes from article: Performers With Stage Fright and Anxiety.

Middle photo: Nicolas Cage in ‘Adaptation’, 2002 – from article: Eric Maisel on anxiety and developing creativity.

Lower image: ‘Artist at work’ By Balaji Dutt – from post: Being Kind to Our Creative Self.


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