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The Best Stress Strategies for Creatives {Writers, Artists, & Photographers}

Stress Strategies for Creatives

On the surface, stress might seem like a good way to kick-start productivity, but studies show that when we are under stress we can’t think as broadly, widely or deeply. Stress can increase motor function but it decreases perception, cognition and creativity. – Beth Kuhel

If you’re someone who creates – a writer, artist, photographer, musician, songwriter or another type of creative – chances are stress has obstructed your creative process more than once.  It may even be an ongoing challenge for you, taking the form of resistance, writer’s block, self-doubt or constant overwhelm.

I believe storytelling is powerful.  Where we share our own stories of stress, others can realize:

  • They’re not alone.  They’re not the only one who has felt trapped by stress.
  • They don’t have to accept an overload of stress as the norm.
  • There’s a way out.  New ideas may be sparked that lead them out of the pit of stress.

Today, I’ve asked 7 talented women – creatives who especially inspire me – to share their personal stories of stress along with their most effective stress dissolving strategies.  I suspect at least one of their stories will speak directly to you and may bring an “aha” or two.

As I read these stories, I see common threads as well as unique angles on addressing creative stress. Ultimately, you must get to know your own stress threshold and the triggers that cause you to trip over it.  But seeing how others work with stress and then adapting the methods that resonate for you can dramatically decrease the time and energy you normally give over to stress.

Then, you’ll have space and a greater sense of ease so you can get on to what’s truly important to you:  CREATING!

Susannah Conway

How does stress manifest in your creative life and what especially triggers it for you?

Susannah Conway, Author, PhotographerA bit of stress is not a bad thing as it helps keep you motivated, but too much stress tends to kill creative flow.  In my experience when you’re trying to be creative to order whatever you create ends up feeling rather forced. Not knowing where to start on a big project amps up my stress levels, as does leaving a piece of writing till the last minute (which I do far more than I should!)

What are your favorite and most effective ways to counteract creative stress?

Mind mapping ideas to get them out of my head and onto the page. Journalling. Resting. Planning my days based on my energy levels. NOT leaving everything till the last minute. NOT working when I’m over-tired or distracted in my personal life.

What single piece of heart-advice would you share with a budding creative who feels challenged by creative stress and pressure?

Figure yourself out. We can’t always avoid stress—it’s a part of work and life—but it’s really helpful to know how you work best. For example, overly structured days kill my inspiration so I make sure my days are as free-flowing as possible. If I have a lot of writing to do I’ll keep a block of days free from other commitments so I can play with the muse without distractions. It really helps.

Susannah Conway is the author of This I Know: Notes on Unraveling the Heart. A photographer, writer and teacher, her classes have been enjoyed by thousands of people from over 50 countries around the world. Co-author of Instant Love: How to Make Magic and Memories with Polaroids, Susannah helps others remember their true selves, using creativity as the key to open the door.  Visit her at SusannahConway.com and say hi on Instagram.

Esmé Weijun Wang

How does stress manifest in your creative life and what especially triggers it for you?

Esmé Wejun WangStress manifests itself in the periphery of my creative life. The creating itself–whether in the form of sitting at an open Pages file or putting pen to paper–is rarely stressful. My brow furrows when the work is being evaluated; when it’s sent back to me with a kind note that says “no, thank you”; when I compare myself to my more accomplished peers and find myself lacking. All of these things are around the edges of the creative work that I do, like a perimeter of barbed wire around a quiet home.

Because I believe in the consideration of our creative legacies, in addition to the legacies that we leave as those who impact others on a daily basis, what happens to the work I make matters. I don’t write for the sake of writing alone; I do want to be read and to reach others. In my MFA program we were encouraged to hone our craft, and not to think about the question of agents and marketability, but that question did eventually come up long after we graduated. The stress of wondering whether what I’d made would make it through the pearly gates arose over and over as I applied to fellowships and submitted query letters. Eventually, I received emails from my agent that caused palpitations. Stress. Stress over contracts, deals, no deals, rejections, acceptances that require additional dealings.

What are your favorite and most effective ways to counteract creative stress?  

The trick is, then, to go back to the work. The work of creation is solitary. For me, writing is difficult, but not stressful. Returning to the work is how I escape from the stress that the work creates.

Esmé Weijun Wang is an author and advocate for creatives seeking to build mastery, resilience, and legacy. You can find her, as well as a body of writing and a variety of quality resources, at esmewang.com. She is also on Twitter at @esmewang.

Tara Leaver

How does stress manifest in your creative life and what especially triggers it for you?

Tara Leaver, Artist and TeacherMuch of my creative action these days is directly in service to others, through course creation, blogging and mentoring {in a way that painting or creating just for myself isn’t}. Trusting that what I make is consistently good enough, and maintaining my own high standards in the creations I send out into the world, can both help me maintain those standards and can also be quite stressful when I worry I’m not meeting them.

What are your favorite and most effective ways to counteract creative stress? 

Anything that involves permission, for example, allowing myself to take more or longer breaks than I think I ‘should’ have. I have found that breaks, although seemingly counter-intuitive when you have a deadline or commitment to keep, are actually the quickest and most effective way to relieve stress and keep the work flowing, as long as I don’t allow any room for guilt while taking them!  I keep a ‘Lovely File’ for all the supportive and validating comments I receive, and check in on it when I worry I’m not producing enough in either quantity or quality; it reminds me that I am doing good work in the world and people are benefiting from it, often in unexpected ways.

What single piece of heart-advice would you share with a budding creative who feels challenged by stress and pressure?

There are so many things you can do to ease creative stress! If I have to pick just one I’ll say get support. Whether that’s from a group of others doing similar work, a friend, or a coach or mentor, having someone to talk to about the stressful moments so you can put them in place and move forward is invaluable. Creating is often a solitary endeavour, but that doesn’t mean you have to be alone in it.

Tara Leaver is an artist, teacher and creative guide working from her home studio on the south coast of England. She offers creative mentoring and runs online courses which support different aspects of the creative experience, with a focus on uncovering and developing your natural and unique artistic expression.  You can connect with Tara on her website at www.taraleaver.com and subscribe to her free mini course with Artnotes.

Kathleen O’Brien

How does stress manifest in your creative life and what especially triggers it for you?

Kathleen O'Brien, Artist and HealerThere are different areas of stress related to creativity for me: being blank, having a deadline I am not prepared to meet, inconsistent income, lack of acceptance, (being rejected from juried shows, low sales and attendance at exhibits, few comments online).

What are your favorite and most effective ways to counteract stress?

Being blank is scary because if I have no sense of direction self-doubt creeps in. I meditate and ask for guidance from within. I pray that whatever is ready to come through me, will. I do whatever it takes to feel confident. On a piece of paper, I make any mark, and keep going or occupy myself with something different like walking.

When faced with a deadline I keep the energy flowing forward. It is essential to be organized; prioritize categories listing the steps in the process and put on a calendar. Scheduling time for rest, entertainment and connection with loved ones is critical to have balance between work and play. I visualize how I want the outcome to look and create a scale model.

Inconsistent income is a challenge that governs many choices. I downsized by half and moved to a place that has a low cost of living in order to work fulltime. I seek opportunities that are affordable and will pay back. I tell the truth about how rich and grateful I am for the blessings in my life.

The most difficult stress is not being accepted because an artist creates for the world. Creativity is inherent in human nature and each person blossoms when they provide time for expression. But art is a higher calling and must be shared. Keep going regardless of perceived failure. Artists know their art is not about them; their art has a life of its own that endures. The task is to be at peace with this.

What single piece of heart-advice would you share with a budding creative who feels challenged by stress and pressure?

At the first sign of stress, stop, breathe, be centered in your heart, identify the source of stress, listen in silence for guidance. If you trust and believe strongly in yourself, can stand up for yourself, then keep going.

Kathleen O’Brien is a professional visionary artist since 1968 and a Transformational Healer since 1991. Her strongest intentions are to create images and artifacts that transmit a positive energy to the world. She lives a simple life at Sunwise Farm and Sanctuary in the Bluegrass Region of Kanta-ke. Her studio is a peaceful setting for offerings that bridge art and consciousness.  You can connect with Kathleen on her blog at Kathleen-Obrien.com and on Facebook.

Meg Wolfe

How does stress manifest in your creative life and what especially triggers it for you?

Meg Wolfe, AuthorI’m prone to stress when there are too many outside demands on my time, energy, and attention. It sets up a conflict in me, especially when I’m on a roll and want to take advantage of a good flow in my work.  The demands can be either pleasant or unpleasant, it doesn’t matter—perhaps there’s simply more things going on than usual, family, friends, appointments, something needing fixing in the house, or a medical issue.

My work itself sustains me, so is rarely a source of stress unless I find that I’m not going to meet a deadline because of the above-mentioned distractions.

What are your favorite and most effective ways to counteract creative stress?

The most important thing for me to protect is my energy level—when that goes, my ability to focus, create, and use my time efficiently becomes a struggle.

Acceptance of how things are in any given moment is paramount. Sometimes things can be changed (asking for help, delegating things to others, rescheduling), but when they can’t it is better to detach from my own annoyance and simply deal with what is in front of me, to do what is needed at that moment in time. This avoids further drains on my precious stores of energy—from anger, frustration, arguing, tension—and preserves equanimity in the environment in which I must live and work.

Acceptance also enables me to stop thinking about my work when the distraction is a pleasant one—I end up benefiting from the break and the chance to reconnect and relax.

What single piece of heart-advice would you share with a budding creative who feels challenged by creative stress and pressure?

Bloom where you’re planted! Create with the life and capabilities you have, not what you wish you had. Don’t depend on inspiration alone—submit yourself to a life of learning your craft, and have faith in the process and in yourself.

Meg is a long time nonfiction writer, most recently of The Minimalist Woman blog and its related self-help and cookbooks. She now focuses almost exclusively on fiction, with a second blog at MegWolfe.com and has written and published two mysteries, An Uncollected Death and An Unexamined Wife. A third, An Undisclosed Vocation, is slated for release in Summer of 2015.

Cynthia Morris

How does stress manifest in your creative life and what especially triggers it for you?

Cynthia Morris, Author, Photographer, IllustratorI consider creative stress to be anxiety over whether I can produce what I envision. It’s also stressful to think about what others will think of my work. It’s triggered for me when I am working in a new medium or collaborating with someone on a project. Or meeting a deadline. To me, creative stress is a good thing, though. It means I am at my creative edge, working on projects that matter to me and that feel slightly out of my reach. I love, love, love being engaged in a deadline-specific project, working on a million pieces toward a specific launch. That’s my favorite way to operate.

What are your favorite and most effective ways to counteract creative stress?

The anxiety that comes along with working on projects is no small thing. It’s easy to talk about how it comes with the territory and how we can manage it, but in the moments of feeling it, it’s absolutely awful.

As a coach for writers and creative people, it’s vital that I am doing my own risky projects so I can always respect and empathize with the things my clients are going through.

I deal with creative stress in a number of ways. I make sure to maintain my practices: meditation, yoga, biking, eating well. It’s vital to keep these going during intense times of creative work.

I also make sure to have space to get distance between me and the work. Even if it’s just walking away from a piece of writing or an illustration and coming back a few minutes later, that new look on things is vital.

Finally, having allies keeps me sane. I have coaches and mastermind partners who help me see the bigger picture, who help me keep my sense of humor and who always encourage my creative risks.

What single piece of heart-advice would you share with a budding creative who feels challenged by stress and pressure?

Don’t give up on yourself for the sake of your work. Rally your support team and your best practices and use that foundation to ensure that you can enjoy the creative process.

An author, artist and business owner, Cynthia Morris has learned how to love being at her creative edge, a place many people avoid. She knows firsthand what it takes to finish and ship books, art, businesses and other ventures that are both profitable and innovative. Through her company Original Impulse, Cynthia has coached thousands of people to move past inner and outer obstacles to make work that matters.  You can also connect with Cynthia on Instagram: @cynthiamorris

Peggy Nolan

How does stress manifest in your creative life and what especially triggers it for you?

Peggy Nolan, AuthorThis is an interesting question. The more I observe my quirky and sometimes erratic creative life, I realize that outside stress or even internal stress manifests as, what Steven Pressfield calls, Resistance.

My triggers include self-doubt, a mean comment on an article, people who unsubscribe from my weekly email, comparison (yikes!), my inner critic, and sometimes writing with a tight deadline.

What are your favorite and most effective ways to counteract creative stress?

Since the majority of my stress shows up as Resistance (think of Resistance as your Inner Critic running amok), it’s up to me to be aware this is happening, breathe into the panicked feeling that stress can bring, and know that this feeling won’t last. It also helps when I have a conversation with my Resistance or Inner Critic, because they are not going away…ever. But I can listen to what they have to say and let them know I’m only writing a first draft. That seems to quiet them down long enough for me to write the draft (and then edit it without the voices in my head knowing about it.)

What single piece of heart-advice would you share with a budding creative who feels challenged by creative stress and pressure?

I don’t think you can ever get rid of the stress or the pressure but you also don’t need to hang onto it until it becomes your excuse for not practicing your art. When you feel like the stress is going to suffocate you, remember to breathe deeply for about 90 seconds. And then get back to work 🙂

Peggy Nolan is a Writer, Sacred Bad-ass Warrior, Vanquisher of Fear, and Slayer of Doubt. She is the International Bestselling author of Inspiration for a Woman’s Soul: Choosing Happiness. You can download Peggy’s free eBook, “30 Ways to Boost Your Positivity” at www.peggynolan.com

For now, here are 7 lessons I’m taking away from this enormously helpful advice on creativity and stress.

  • Know yourself and how you work best.
  • Work itself can be the antidote to stress.
  • Get support from a friend, a mentor, or a group.
  • Listen in silence for guidance from within.
  • Protect your energy level.
  • Creative stress can be a positive sign that you’re at your creative edge.
  • Have a friendly talk with your “resistance” or “inner critic.”

I know I’ll revisit this post for inspiration and ideas time and again because there’s so much more  practical wisdom beyond these 7 immediate lessons. I hope you’ll click the links to enjoy the beautiful artwork, published works, and unique creativeness each of these extraordinary women offer to the world.

I’m sending deep gratitude to each of you, dear contributors.  Your contributions are so outstanding.  I know they will light a path for others struggling with stress in their creative life.  Thank you so much!


My e-course, Living with Ease, The Mindful Way to Less Stress, offers a complete roadmap for dissolving stress and preventing it from overwhelming you again.  The course combines mindfulness, self-inquiry, and supportive stress reduction techniques to help you give stress the boot.  Check out the course details here.


 

Thank you for your presence, I know your time is precious!  Don’t forget to sign up for my e-letter and get access to all the free self-development resources (e-books, mini-guides + worksheets) in the Always Well Within Library. May you be happy, well, and safe – always.  With love, Sandra

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20 Comments

  1. Thanks, Sandra and every one of you amazing creative people! This was SO timely because I have several “stuck” paintings and a poem I just tore limb from limb (actually that was the exact right thing to do!) So I guess I am going to have to take that same attitude with the paintings—- go after them with no fear and no preciousness allowed! I am going to save this post to refer to later —–so helpful! And what wonderful artist/writers/all-round creative folk!!! Thanks, Sandra! Brilliant!

    • Dear Jean,
      I thought of you so much as I was gathering this article together! With all your years of experience as an artist, I’m sure you would have your own valuable advice about working with stress.

      I love how the timing of this article is so perfectly coinciding with your momentary “stuck” state and helping you move through it. I love your willingness to approach it so boldly. I appreciate the energy you’re bringing to this.

      As always, I’m so grateful to you for sharing your experience.

  2. What an inspiring group of women! It all goes to show that we all experience stress and develop ways to cope with it – or keep it at bay. I love what Cynthia says about developing practices. For me that’s been the best solution – now I’m determined to stick with them 🙂

    • Yeah! It really does help to hear each others’ stories and be reminded, doesn’t it! From what I’ve seen, you’re quite a disciplined and determined person so I think you have so much to share with all of us. Of course, we all have our ups and downs when it comes to practicing the practice. 🙂 I loved your last article on How to Walk. Now that’s a practice I need to put into play. Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. What a wonderful diversity of dissolving stress For me painting every day give me a time to be at peace. My advice is make 5 – 10 minutes a day to do something creative that feeds your soul. xxoo

    • Hi Suzie,

      I love all the different ideas too, Suzie. I’m sure you have so much wisdom in this area as you’ve been painting for a long time as well. I appreciate that you make time to paint every day. Thanks for sharing your own personal advice.

  4. How interesting that I can totally resonate with almost all of the stress triggers. Perhaps there’s something similar in our conscious awareness of being! I totally love the fact that these amazing creative women all have techniques in place to ‘manage’ stress as it occurs.

    Such a healthy way to live.

    Thanks Sandra for another exceptional post.

    • That is interesting! Perhaps, they’re programmed into us in someway and our job is to untangle the programming. I’m glad you could relate and I know you have your own special ways of working with stress.

  5. By far my favourite comment in this brilliant collaboration, were these words shared by Meg Wolfe, “My work itself sustains me.” I had to stop and read that over a few times. Love!!

    • That’s very special, indeed. Thanks for highlighting these words for us! Those wise bits can really help us when we get into rough seas.

  6. Such a wonderful group of creative women with great ideas and reminders for managing stress. I also find that the process of setting small goals or milestones and then tracking your progress can alleviate some of the challenge that can occur in a creative process. It is a good way to remind yourself that you are indeed making strides in a positive direction. It allows you (even if only briefly!) a sense of accomplishment along the way.

    • I love that idea of small milestones and tracking your progress, Tara. Thanks for adding it into the mix.

  7. Thanks for the wonderful tips and for the wonderful women to connect with, Sandra! I think starting out with any creative endeavour is scary, stressful, and amazing!

  8. Thank you for including me in this piece, Sandra! SO interesting and insightful to hear how others approach creativity and stress.

    You’re so generous and helpful, and I am delighted to be connected with you.

    • You’re welcome, Cynthia! I especially love what you said because you have a slightly different stance on stress and creativity. I think it’s so important to know that we’re all different in this way and we need to find a way that truly resonates and works for us. Being exposed to all these different ideas, I think, can help with that.

      Thanks for your kind words!

  9. What a great article. Thanks to all of these artists for sharing. I gleaned pearls of awareness and wisdom from each and everyone of them!

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Jean! I always get excited myself by all the goodness offered in an article like this!

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