Writing as an antidote to stress?
How can that be true?
Seems to the casual observer that spending days, sometimes months studying opaque topics like epigenetics, or court cases about physicians wrongfully convicted of murder or former combat marines wrongfully convicted of raping a child would cause stress, not relieve it…and not just the research going into the story that all that rest that goes into creating…and then publishing a book.
How can all that work possibly relieve one’s stress?
Stress is both over and under estimated.
“I am so….stressed out right now!” Usually when we think or say this, our problem isn’t stress but rather frustration, anger or confusion.
But the chronic insomnia, loss of purpose in our lives, anxiety about the future or any of the myriad of reasons our psyches can harm is are frequently under estimated. Stress is not a fleeting emotion but a condition which when experienced by animals and humans alike can kill.
For a number of years, I have been an off and on again ‘student of stress.’ Due to the acquaintance made with Hans Selye while in graduate school followed by a much longer one with Norman Cousins before and during the years he taught at the Stanford Medical School I became fascinated by the power we have for harming or healing ourselves.
Consequently, I write frequently about stress.
And what I know to be true is that most of us, know far too little about stress or its corollary, eustress. A notion that both Seyle and Cousins knew intimately. Of late, I have joined their august company.
But first, a personal experience. One, I suspect that you’ll recognize. Much of the following is excerpted from a guest post I did for Clear Your Stress.
While walking rapidly down the hall of the new hospital, in the new city, new state…new everything, three days after the move I had never planned to make, I was delighted to see the face of a good friend from Houston, never questioning why this physician would be in Massachusetts on a Monday morning in November. Doubling my speed to catch up with him, his name Steve! was about to burst out of my mouth when the stranger turned to look quizzically at me and extended his hand to say, “Hi, aren’t you the new Hospital Director? Welcome, my name is…” I knew then that my level of stress was off the charts, certainly greater than I had ever experienced.
Embarrassed, hoping desperately that I could hide the crushing disappointment, I smiled and shook his hand realizing that my ‘hallucination’ was a symptom and that I needed to do something to mitigate the profound stressful effects of so many losses over so very short a period of time.
Although you may have never experienced what I’ve just described above,
I’ll wager that the scene I just described evoked a memory or three.
I recall worried friends in Houston telling me that I would have to find a way to deal with the chaos of my life and my terse and sarcastic replies of ‘I’ll be sure and add that to my list!’
My friends were right, of course, but there are times, when in the midst of a life in chaos, as mine was at that time, that all we can do is put one foot in front of the other, knowing that there is no one to whom we can look for help; that the overwhelming and impossible list of tasks must be done, that there is only one person to do them and it is you. We look back and wonder at ourselves; wonder that we managed it all, alone. But there is always a cost; often physiologic as well as psychological, at some point or another, the physiologic and psychological signs announce themselves in ways that are increasingly difficult to overlook.
My visual ‘hallucination’ that day signaled me that I needed to do something and quickly to deal with the emotions that I had successfully boxed up during the summer my life blew up.
Already, I was working out like a maniac, starting my long days with a minimum of an hour work out and grabbing several mile runs on the weekends with the young Doberman puppy who was saving my life. Although I had learned meditation during the few years I had flirted with Buddhism, I simply could not do it; the mind chatter was loud and unceasing.
So I began to write differently from any writing I had ever done before; shocking myself, I began to write poetry. As an undergrad English major, poets like EE Cummings, TS Eliot, Auden, Rilke were opaque to me; I never understood the allegories, my mind far too literal and concrete.
A friend from Houston had given me a book I treasure to this day,
Writing Down The Bones along with a beautiful leather bound journal as a going away gift.
Once I picked up a pen and turned off the editor in my head, to my surprise, poems began to appear. Over time, there were enough to put together in a book which I self-published several years ago: Searching for the Sacred.
Someone once called poetry the language of the heart. It is a good a definition as I have ever found. I have written my entire life but always my writing was of the medical technical fields of my professional life, comfortably intellectual. Poetry evokes another language: one that springs from somewhere else; in tapping into that place, and in taking the risk to write and then publish what appeared there, I found healing and peace.
Had I been told that I would be writing novels in not all that many years, I would been astounded.
Is the writing always free of stress?
But as I explained at an author forum a few months ago, I’m getting better. Each book is an improvement over its predecessor, in many ways: style, structural cohesiveness, character development as well as editing.
And my capacity to follow the writing has expanded by leaps and bounds. That statement may sound more than a little woo woo but bottom line is that I no longer stress out when I fail to meet my deadlines.
Or worry when I get stuck.
Remember that peculiar word used earlier: Eustress?
After forty years of study, Hans Selye learned that not all stress was the same. His cutting edge basic science research on stress was grabbed by a few psychologists who revealed that good stress existed. Norman Cousins in his splendid book, Healing Heart takes his reader by the hand to personally introduce her to both inimical and the beneficial stress in powerful, unforgettable prose.
Our brains are like wild horses.
If not controlled, our fears and worries can take the reins leaving us paralyzed, trying to hang on.
My preoccupation most of the time is young Saul. How and why he got to be the Saint. The Apostle for the Gentiles.
By now, I hope, you can understand why my writing continues to be a most effective antidote to stress!