These days there’s a growth industry in what has been called the “modern epidemic.” Stress-related disorders affect 80% of the population. Funny, you’d think that there might have been more stress in the old days when folks were regularly eaten by wolves. Apparently not. Nowadays we are cooking up our own stress. “Stress is the body’s automatic default reaction to perceived threat,” says stress management guru Eli Bay. His Relaxation Response Institute in Toronto, Canada, offers deep breathing, nose-breathing focus, positive affirmations and other techniques to bring the body and mind into a state of calm. “You don’t have to believe in it,” says Bay, “You just have to do it. What’s real is what you experience.” Eli and other therapists offer what sounds like an artist’s wish list: More energy, calmer disposition, more control, clearer thinking, improved memory, increased productivity, enhanced creativity.
Many artists find that confident attention to a doable process is in itself the therapy that reduces stress. While it’s been my observation that beginning artists often have “art stress,” this is another matter and comes with the territory. Art stress tends to dissipate as confidence grows — until that wonderful day when full competency appears and the artist works joyfully and stress free. Only one problem — that day never arrives.
But in a world of tranks and Prozac, what is called the “Relaxation response” is a valuable creative tool — the creator slips into a languid “joy mode” where work flows relatively freely and almost unconsciously. Like deep breathing, there’s value in deep creativity. Getting into this state, artists ought to take a look at their body language and posture. Focus on what the back, legs and arms are actually doing — and, if necessary, correct them. Properly configured, art making reduces stress.
Something else to consider is the sensible replacement of ordinary life stresses with noble stresses. Like a lot of engaging, absorbing activities — stamp collecting, bird watching, canoe building, art making takes the edge from the stresses of life and provides a sanctuary from them. Probably wrongly, I’ve always thought that art was the highest calling.
PS: “Unfortunately, it’s much easier to pop a pill, than it is to develop a skill.” (Eli Bay)
Esoterica: Some stress managers for the studio are RPS, OSPZ and MAD. “Relaxed Pressure Scheduling” (RPS) is a laid back, self-generated plan where work-pressure is gently moved from external demand to internal government. “Off-Station Play Zones” (OSPZ, Say: “I’m going for some osspeezee.”) means outside-the-studio activities, including non-creative hobbies, social and physical interests. MAD is the simple and basic solution for the stress caused by the drooling wolf at the door: “Make A Delivery.”
This letter was originally published as “Understanding studio stress” on May 21, 2004.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was a leading figure in the early-20th-century German Expressionist group Die Brücke. His art was labeled as “degenerate” by the Nazis in the 1930s, and he would commit suicide in 1938.
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“I go to great pains to mask the agony. But the struggle is there. It’s the invisible enemy.” (Richard Diebenkorn)