Art and stress


Dear Artist,

There’s no doubt about it, stress in the life of an artist can contribute to the diminishment of the art. Not only the amount created, but the quality as well. Simply put, daily stresses block the clear flow that exemplifies the artist’s life. Apart from that, stress over a period of time can lead to high blood pressure, stroke, and a host of other disorders that greatly interferes with the quality and duration of life itself.

That’s not to say that some stress isn’t valuable. Here’s something that may surprise you: Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine have found that when baby monkeys are subjected to a lot of stress, they become less clingy and more adventuresome as adults. The doctors surmise that this goes for all primates. The thinking is that stressed young may be better able to put their fingers on the early sources of stress and thus learn skills to reduce stresses in later life.

When an artist has stress — either from interpersonal problems, creative frustration, or other studio nags such as bank balance or dealer pressure — a self-education with the highly regarded Stress Inoculation Training (SIT) might just be useful. The idea with SIT is to focus on specific stress triggers — one at a time. Identifying (and more or less understanding) the source of the stress leads to a careful examination of the evidence in each particular stress zone. Very often we find we are generalizing, magnifying or making cognitive errors in our judgments of situations. Whether the trigger is genuine or exaggerated, the stressed artist needs to play the role of the calm, objective observer — “The Perry Mason Role” — even when “calm” is farthest from the mind. This role-playing is vital — it’s my experience that artists can be particularly good at the game. By reframing the source, a chronic stress is reduced to a recurring annoyance. The script has been rewritten.

Other stress-reducing ploys are well documented. Watering plants, tending goldfish, reading, meditation, yoga, exercise, journaling (no whining), music, lavender and herbal tea may tame the beast, but they do not neutralize the source in the way that SIT seems to do. Unfortunately, creative people in particular are moving targets. For example, as most of us know, sitting at an easel may salve stress one time — at other times it may stress us out even more.

Best regards,


PS: “You build up resistance to stress by learning, acquiring and practicing skills needed to go forward and cope.” (Dr. Donald Meichenbaum, University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada)

Esoterica: When all else fails there is always work. Someday I’m going to write a book called “The Easel as Avoidance Activity.” After a period of time a committed artist can come to the conclusion that the easel solves everything. While keeping the stress-bearing wolves at bay, it is its own panacea and its own dominion. As Louise Nevelson said, “At my easel I’m as happy as a cow in her stall.” There’s definitely something about the easel and the stuff that goes around it. Outside the studio, the moles making a “World-War-One-Landscape” out of our lawns have been reduced to a “natural phenomenon.”


Stress blocks creativity
by Camille Pendleton, Houston, TX, USA


“Energetic Landscape”
acrylic 30 x 40 inches
by Camille Pendelton

I feel you were directing today’s email to me. I have never heard of SIT but would like to know more about it. The stress in my life seems to have blocked much of my creativity. I keep painting and, although I have produced some good work, I find that when I have completed a work to my satisfaction, I am still tense and exhausted where once I would have been exhilarated.

(RG note) Thanks, Camille. You get 260,000 hits when you enter “Stress Inoculation Training” into Google. The ideas behind SIT turn out to be a lot of common sense. They are freely available and certainly autodidactic. A guidebook to SIT by Dr. Donald Meichenbaum can be found in his book, Stress Inoculation Training.


Stress-free with meditation
by Ruth Phillips, Bedoin, France

It sounds to me like SIT is very close to meditation, which is the most ancient form of dealing with stress. Like the technique you mention, in meditation we learn the power of observation without attachment. Thus we learn to see a thought just for what it is: A thought — whether it be planning lunch, working out one’s tax return, a pleasant memory or a judgment. We then learn to observe our reaction to that thought (physical and emotional), and in observing we watch it pass like a cloud. Which reminds me, it’s time to sit.


Art used to depict stress
by Anne Jarvis, Duncan, BC, Canada


oil painting 36 x 48 inches
by Anne Jarvis

The Avatar course gives one the tools to quickly and easily get into the ‘observer’ mode. It has changed my life and my art. When I use the tools the Avatar course taught me, I am clear, unencumbered by emotions, worries or react mode. Come to the October course as my student! “Each moment that you are happy is a gift to the rest of the world.” “Feel life. Life is.”

(RG note) Thanks, Patricia. Avatar is an expensive, nine-day self-empowerment training delivered by a worldwide network of licensed Avatar “Masters.” Over 50,000 graduates from 65 countries are reputedly enjoying the benefits of Avatar. Ex Scientologist Harry Palmer is the author and promoter of the Avatar concept.



Movement while drawing
by Anne Petrie, Calgary, AB, Canada


Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais (1904-1984)

Regarding art and stress, we are currently holding workshops with an art educator, Vera Gartley, and Feldenkrais practitioner, Jennifer Herzog. The system is to combine movement (very gentle, small movements… nothing embarrassing or difficult) and drawing. I’ve found it helps overcome personal barriers (usually just plain fear) that are so troubling for many.

(RG note) Thanks, Anne. The idea of combining a sort of elegant tai-chi movement with the act of making art — alone or in a group — may just happen to be a stress reducer for artists as well as a creativity generator. Awareness Through Movement, developed by Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, attempts to utilize the innate creative intelligence of the nervous system to find new solutions and improved ways of organizing physical movement.


All by myself
by Linda Archinal, Woodacre, CA, USA

I stress over some of the work I create, now in mosaics, and previously in songwriting. My first and only abstract piece made me so tense I thought I almost couldn’t breathe. Most of the time that isn’t an issue. The larger issue I find is that I prefer to work alone, without the ‘stress’ of dealing with others in my area. I was speaking with another artist about this and she has the same situation. My personal preference is to take on a project whatever the venue and proceed to work on it (or play with it) all by myself. I like to create it, make it, mull over it, do whatever with it, without any sort of interference from anyone else. I like people and I don’t mind the presence of others. But I think the urge, ability and vision to create is a solo endeavor.


I own my stress
by Jeffrey Hessing, France


“Williamsburg Bridge”
oil painting, 32 x 24 inches
by Jeffrey Hessing

I was driving along one day and feeling angry at my girlfriend, having an argument in my head with her. Then after a while it shifted and I was angry at my dealer and having an imaginary argument with him. Then I started fuming about how my landlord hasn’t fixed the leak in the roof yet. Finally it was my ex girlfriend for something that happened years ago. Suddenly I thought, “Wait a minute. I’m just plain angry, period. I can find loads of people and situations to pin it on, but guess what, It’s just what’s happening inside me now at this moment.” Big revelation. It’s not about them. It’s about me. It’s my emotion, my anger. I own it.


Seek help with stress
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA


“The Big Ham”
oil painting, 38 x 50 inches
by Coulter Watt

Stress and anxiety are the two major leading factors in myocardial infarctions — heart attacks — and strokes. It’s best to get a grip on the cause of stress and take remedial action promptly. Realizing that one has a problem and taking steps to remedy the situation is a position of strength. Anyone suffering these symptoms should seek professional help. It’s the most positive and intelligent thing one can do for one’s self. There is no shame in seeking help.



Spirit prevails
by Todd Plough, New York, USA


“Cabin interior”
oil painting on panel
by Todd Plough

Anyone who does not make art but tries to explain art is like a man trying to describe childbirth. Scientists are always trying to figure out the goo that makes us work and forget the very thing it is that makes us run — it is what leaves us when we die — and they don’t know what that is either, do they? Our spirit. Run as fast as you can Einstein — you’ll never catch me I’m the gingerbread man. A scientist thinks about the chewing — an artist enjoys the tasting.


‘Joy of Stress’
by Cindy Frostad, Canada


“Crested Sea”
acrylic on canvas 6 x 8 inches
by Cindy Frostad

Yesterday, I attended Ted Kuntz’s Joy of Stress workshop. He pointed out many challenged areas to which I could relate, as a person and as an artist. I think it worthwhile to pass along some of the systems that Ted provided. Six ways to feed the ‘negative wolf’ are: Imagining the worst, making mistakes (when you think about it, nothing is a mistake), thinking like a victim, living in the past or future, resisting reality, and delaying happiness (I will return to painting when the roofers finish!)

The ten ways to feed the ‘positive wolf’ are: Take responsibility for assigning meaning (the more you put focus on an energy, the more likely it will happen), use your imagination creatively, live in the present, choose what does the most good, accept reality, trust, pay attention to your pain (what is it telling you?), schedule your ‘worry time’ (and then stop when the time is up!), be happy now. Realize that ‘You are as happy as you make up your mind to be.’ (Abraham Lincoln) Breathe from your diaphragm.


Emotional Freedom Technique
by Jennifer E. Young, Richmond, VA, USA


“The Shores of Varenna”
oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches
by Jennifer E. Young

I have been working for a while with another similar technique that has helped me immensely. It is called EFT (short for Emotional Freedom Technique). Like SIT, you focus on your limiting beliefs, sources of stress, etc., but at the same time you tap on various acupressure points. EFT also helps with goal setting. We all have goals we want to achieve, but just as often we also carry limiting beliefs or even counter-intentions that keep those goals out of our grasp. EFT can help to uncover some of those counter intentions that we may hold, sometimes that we aren’t even aware of. An example might be, “I want a successful art career, but success means I have to sell out.” By repeating the phrase, “Success means selling out,” and tapping on the acupressure points, you can release this limiting belief and possibly even uncover more to work on and let go.

(RG note) Thanks, Jennifer. For those who might be interested, EFT is reasonably priced (DVDs etc.) and you can hire practitioners or do it by yourself. Gary Craig is the founder and promoter of EFT.


A deep and conscious effort
by Helena Tiainen, Berkeley, CA, USA

There have been many studies on the benefits of making art to reduce stress. As a hobby, creating art can be of great benefit as an altered state of consciousness. Since there is no pressure to make money with the product, a hobby artist can gain pleasure from the experience. But this changes as soon as one starts to make art professionally and intends to make a living by selling their product. If there is not enough money in the bank and the rent is due and the painting or whatever form of art is not producing the worldly recognition in monetary form, the stress can get to the artist. The trick is to rise above the circumstances. If one manages to do this, the work will not suffer from the life situation and may even provide relief. The question is, “Where do I create from and what do I want to create?” We all have some control over our own reactions to what life brings into our experience. This is truly where we have choice. And power. We can react the usual way, which is based on our old experiences and the emotional baggage we carry or we can become aware of our tendencies and choose to react differently. An old stressor can become a friend. There is often an opportunity in a challenge and amazingly a mistake can turn into an unforeseen possibility. I guess one personality’s stressor might be another personality’s fortune. It all depends on what we make out of it and what we make our experiences mean. We all have the power to alter our own emotional realities. But it takes deep and conscious effort.


Physician comments on stress
by Gil Dyck, Vancouver, BC, Canada


Dr. Dyck (in the bow) takes every opportunity to get exercise. For example, here at his daughter Lindsay’s wedding.

Symptoms are often escalated by the stress they cause, creating a classic negative feed-back cycle or “vicious circle.” This “symptom-fear” cycle can be illustrated, for example, by hypertension. We know stress can cause hypertension (via the catecholamine system (i.e. adrenalin)) and, in turn, a diagnosis of hypertension can cause fear or stress, which raises the blood pressure and so on and on it goes. This cycle often accounts for the escalation of headaches, chest pain, abdominal pain, all of which engender fear. Often a thorough clinical examination or appropriate investigation proves there is no serious cause, which then decreases the patient’s fear, which in turn de-escalates the symptom, and so on until the symptom disappears entirely.


Sara Genn combining art with cardiovascular workout on the advice of Dr. Gil Dyck

Stress can cause symptoms in the first place. Any stressful encounter creates energy (we are hard-wired for this). We can act on that energy at the time (i.e. externalize it) and it will be dissipated by action. Or, we can store it for future use or “internalize” it. It will not just fade away. We all have a certain capacity to store this energy but it is not infinite. Ultimately it reaches full capacity and then it looks for a way of escaping. This escaping built-up energy is often transformed into physical symptomatology — headaches, abdominal pains, skin rashes, high blood pressure, fatigue, etc. It can also suddenly totally erupt causing a “nervous breakdown.” It is important to diminish this built-up energy before it builds toward full capacity.

What to do about stress? First: Cognitive Therapy — Be aware of the role of stress in how it may be escalating symptoms or interfering with performance. Try to actively reduce the fear. Secondly, Stress Reduction: the things you mentioned — yoga, plant-watering, etc. This is the no-brainer part of stress management. I personally advocate aerobic or “cardio” exercise as the best way to burn up the energy that is created by stress. Ask any exerciser why he continues and he will say it reduces his stress. The third way is Stress Avoidance — this is more complicated and involves a more detailed explanation — beyond the scope of this reply. Basically any stressful encounter (e.g. disagreement with boss, argument with spouse, financial worry, fear of failure) can be divided into two parts — The part you can do something about and the part you have no control over. Stress avoidance is achieved when you can take the first part and make an action plan to deal with that encounter — this way you externalize that energy. Then you take the second part and toss it away and refuse to “internalize” it since you can’t do anything about it anyway. Some people are able to do this instinctively so consequently can withstand enormous amounts of stress. Others are crushed by the smallest of stressors. Nonetheless one can start to learn this mental technique with practice.

Stress or fear can be a great motivator. Some of us perform best under stress. But fear can also be the greatest block to performance. Ask any golfer facing a 5 foot putt that really counts or pianist at her first recital. One of the things that separates world class musicians, artists and athletes from the rest of us is their ability to be calm under stressful situations. Stress also consumes enormous amounts of energy that could be used for more useful pursuits. Feeling fatigued? Could be stress sapping your energy. Stress management is critical to reduce clinical symptoms and to enhance performance.


Concern about neuroarthistory conclusions
by Manuel E. De Leon

The thesis that Florentine painters express more use of line, per se, while Venetian painters have more use of colour is interesting but merits further study. The Florence of Cimabue, Giotto, Michelangelo, Luca della Robbia, Masaccio, Donatello, etc., cannot deny that they made the adamant contribution of both line and color to the “Cradle of the Renaissance.” Since literary Florence brought the Tuscano Italiano to the level of Oxford English, we must credit Dante Alleghiri, Giovanni Bocaccio and others for their contribution to the development of the superlative intellect of all Florentine Art. As for line, it was Masaccio (of Florence) that introduced the contrapposto lineation of the relaxed naturalism of the human figure that in turn enabled Donetello and Michelangelo to convey the beauty of human form that hadn’t been seen since Greek classicism.


Moving around a lot
by Kim Rodeffer Funk, England

With my family, I move around a lot (due to my husband’s employment) within the US as well as internationally. I have a need to set up a studio at each new home. In the US, we own those homes, however when we live internationally, we end up renting. I am wondering if you and other readers might have some suggestions for being able to have an easily transportable (we have the luxury of professional movers) studio with workable storage as well as coverage of walls and floors of sometimes small rooms. I have some ideas that are okay, but would like to hear the input of others.

(RG note) Thanks, Kim. While some of our readers will certainly have something to say to you about this, I’d like to put in that it’s amazing how Spartan an “away” kit can be — and how long you can go with the most simple set-up. To me it’s almost an advantage to work sparsely for a while—cleans out the creative cobwebs, so to speak. This perhaps because my home studio, where I have been accumulating stuff for years, is so cluttered. Storage of finished work while away is another matter. I don’t believe in it. Ship it. Regarding floor coverings, I use polyvinyl sheeting (vapor barrier) over the Axminsters. That way you can still look at the nice rugs — for a while.





Still Life

oil painting on canvas
by Timur Ayupov, Tashkent, Uzbekistan


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.

That includes Nikki Coulombe of Lewisville, TX, USA who wrote, “That puts a new slant on any misfortune; that we can attempt to transform it into fortune; put our feelings and expression of “negative” emotions toward producing more powerful work. Like spinning straw into gold!”

And also Selina Leung who wrote, “Artists, being hyper sensitive, have a stronger reaction to things than most people do. As such, the pain inside your mind and heart is immeasurable. However, it also has the advantage that sensitivity causes us to create.”

And also Ted Clemens of Sachse, TX, USA who wrote, “Plein air painting lets me accomplish something and gear down from a snapshot day. Also a long bike ride and salad for dinner helps settle thoughts and calms impulses.”

And also Doris Osbahr who wrote, “There is nothing more attractive and motivating for me than a white wall, an empty space, a new sheet of watercolor paper or a clean canvas. The stuff that surrounds me now is my source of negative stress!!”

And also Doug Pollard of Victoria, BC, Canada who wrote, “There is a conflict here because practicing art as therapy is inhibited by the very stress for which therapy is sought. Possibly a mediator is to be found among the sources of inspiration for our art — a book, a mentor, a place, an object, a person we love to paint.”

And also Genevieve Serret who wrote, “There are two ways to remedy stress. As a visionary artist you become the magician and transform your stress into a series of works. The other is sex.”



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