Tuesday, July 12, 2011

When Writing Feels Stressful

After all the talk about the health benefits of writing, you  think of it as something much like taking your vitamins or blood pressure meds, but more time-consuming. “I guess I’d better sit down and write now,” you may think, although you have ninety other thing you’d rather be doing and nothing in mind to write about. “But it’s good for me,” you mentally sigh. “It will make me healthier.”

You pick up your pen or sit at the computer. Your stomach knots; your muscles clench. You stare at the blank page or monitor. This is not writer’s block. Perhaps you really are pulled in ninety directions at the moment, or maybe you are experiencing burnout.  You may have built up a huge pile of expectations and allowed writing to become a burden rather than a joy. It’s easy to begin to perceive anything as a burden when you “have” to do it. Burdens can become crushingly heavy and fill our lives with stress.

Stress? Isn’t stress bad for your health? Aren’t all these writing tricks supposed to reduce stress? Isn’t that a primary factor in improving health and happiness? So isn’t writing when you feel stressed about it likely to make things worse and not better?
The answer to all those questions is yes. If you feel totally stressed about a writing session, you probably aren’t going to write well, and you may end up feeling more stressed than ever. Here are a few things you can do when writing begins to generate stress rather than relieving it:

Take a break. Unless you are a professional writer making your living as a wordsmith, nobody said you have to write every single day, or even every week. It’s okay to skip a session now and then, as long as you remain aware that it’s easy for one break to lead to another until you lose your commitment to a process you value and believe in.

Write about why you feel so stressed. Even if you spend only five minutes making a list, you’ll get those thoughts out where you can see them and begin to deal with them. If your stress comes from writing about something so upsetting it's freaking you out, you may decide to apply James Pennebaker's "flip-out rule" and write about something else for awhile.

Make a plan. Nearly every self-help guru, life coach, management consultant, or motivational speaker urges people to use to-do lists to manage time and get more done. Writers, whether casual or professional, will also benefit from this wisdom. Use your writing time to work on that plan.

Write nonsense. Rant and rave or be outrageously silly or sarcastic. If you are undecided which route to go, aim for the humor. Try to find something funny in your current situation. James Pennebaker’s research has shown the value of adopting alternate points of view, and many researchers have documented the healing value of humor and laughter.

Extend compassion to yourself. Think of yourself as your own best friend. Imagine that you could sit down across the table from a clone of yourself. Listen to your clone’s laments and kvetching about life today. Think how you’d feel, how much you’d like to comfort that clone. Place your hand over your heart and feel the compassion mirroring back to your actual self that you’d extend to your clone. Now write a short note of encouragement to yourself, being as upbeat and appreciative as you can be. No scolding or judging — stick to friend-talk.
Hopefully one or more of these suggestions will lift you up and calm you down, today or soon, and get your writing back on track .

Write now: if you feel stressed or pressured about your writing, try one of the tips above.

Image credit: Bark

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