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.”
Beauty goes straight to the gut
by Liz James, Kent Town, Australia
When the juices are flowing, that is the greatest stress reducer there is. Joy abounds. But when it just doesn’t go right, I resort to playing music. No, not a tape or CD, but a real live instrument of some kind. No visual reactions, just beauty that goes straight to the gut.
by Renate Janzen
Although I appreciate your relaxation advice, I resent the reference to “popping a pill” like “Prozac.” First of all, antidepressants don’t work instantly like popping an illicit drug for a quick “high” or a quick “calmness.” I see these references so often by people who obviously know nothing about Clinical Depression or Anxiety Disorders. Unfortunately I am one of those people who suffer from these disorders and have spent many years trying to cope with this illness. The natural de-stressors like deep breathing, meditation, Cognitive Behavior Modification, etc. etc. definitely help. This is why I took up painting. It is a fantastic way to relax, although I sometimes get totally frustrated, but that is part of the game. Medications dull your emotions and imagination and I truly wish I could do without them.
Doing art relieves stress
by Andrea Pottyondy Stoffer, NS, Canada
Doing art is my stress reliever. It takes me to a different place, a place that I slowly go into as I create and it gently brings me back to earth. Yoga classes and the breathing techniques I have learned, similar to that mentioned in your letter, have also helped to clear my head when needed. We are constantly fed a lot of negativity by our ever-expanding media/info technology even though “love is actually all around us.”
Expectations and stress
by Alev Oguz
Stress is usually caused by pressure, which is closely related to expectations/goals etc. Once in awhile, paint something only for yourself. Not for critiques, not for commission, not for an exhibition, not for friends nor for family members. Only for yourself — a secret to keep within the self. You can keep that painting in a drawer in your studio where no one would reach. It is an amazing freedom! And you cannot imagine how it leads to a big breakthrough in creativity.
Brotherhood / Sisterhood
by Juan Lugo, Kauai, Hawaii
All too often the ideal situation to simply create never occurs and I have wrestled with the demon many a time. I believe that the score at this time is home team (me): 10, visitors (my demons): 90. But it is through your input, ideas and reading of the trials and tribulations of many others (morphic fields) that keeps me trying. Everyday, I envision myself in my studio creating and earning my right to be called an “Artist.” This persistence has given rise to many a creative idea, because I am constantly forced to think out of the box. Thank-you all “out there” for being “in there.”
by Tim Collis-Bird, Chatswood, Australia
“Information overload” may well contribute to the stress experienced. Sadly, this letter will contribute in some small way. Our letter boxes are being filled daily with reading material, all of which is information designed to compel us to read, to make another decision which just may have big consequences. We may sit in front of computers and unavoidably read and respond to what we see — even delete? that too!
Perhaps many of us are just not suited to endless reams of information, but are more suited to Art — where we are in control and are happy to apply ourselves, create through what and who we are, not forever thinking about and listening to what someone else is thinking. Dismantle the Letter Box, trash the computer and just go out and smell the roses. It’ll be much cheaper and better for you anyway. Will I do this? Probably not. I’d like to know what happens!
Stress related to environment
by Lida Van Bers, Vancouver Island, Canada
Stress is more related to the environment you live in. As an artist, the ideal is to live in calm, peaceful and intriguing surroundings where earth meets atmosphere. However, the reality is that we live in a place we can afford and live with all kinds of little or big annoyances. Our stress levels will often depend on the interruptions, demands and obligations we have. For a female the obligations are often overriding the urge to go to the studio and hide from all and everyone. This causes a definite stress. When finally we do get where we want to be, the stress mounts because we lost our momentum. This is where the meditation comes in. The Orientals have a good system. You sit in front of your object you want to work on, close your eyes and totally empty your thoughts. It takes practice but it certainly helps to get rid of all the irritations. I usually start with cleaning up and looking at what kind of brushes, paper, or paint I would like to use. It helps me to get back where I have left off. Soft music and a bit of sun is an added motive.
Born to be an artist
by Sharon Voyles, IL, USA
Art is the highest calling because we, as artists, must wade through a daily barrage of stress-filled factors and yet we still manage to produce our art. My major focus is to make beautiful paintings in a not-so-beautiful world and I will admit that the frustration felt as I feel stress building within me impedes me at times. If a person decides to be a doctor or a lawyer or even a barmaid no one questions why, but as an artist I have been faced with family and friends who question my choice and I have encountered much opposition along the way. My contention is that “an artist is born to be an artist” and must use the talents he/she has been gifted with to be truly happy. Artists travel a unique path in this life and we have to learn to ignore the stresses that would deter us from it. I’ve decided that stress is not allowed on my agenda anymore and instead my focus is that “All Things Are Possible!”
by Norma Laming, London, UK
Yes, grandparents would have been nice! I had no extended family and overwhelming pressure to get a “good job” — in fact as a lawyer. Not surprisingly I have never done well; how can you when the work is contrary to everything that matters to you? What we need to know is how to make up for what we never had, rather than tales which show us how much we have to compensate for!
Hormones of activity
by Yaroslaw Rozputnyak, Moscow, Russia
It seems that artists’ problems are the same in all world and business stress is present also. Stress nature caused by adrenaline (adrenaline prepares body to struggle). Evidently too much adrenaline exhaust the body because of mobilizing of all resources. The ways are different:
— to avoid adrenaline situations;
— to decrease at cases;
— to redirect.
Of course, to avoid is not possible generally except of separate cases. To decrease — yes, any movement helps, eating of any food helps, beer helps, sugar as energy-giving substance helps. Chemically help any organic acid — acid fruits, but not only acid these — organic acids are present in any sweet fruits, just these are masked or decreased content of them. Quick bioavailable amino acids are necessary at stress — bullion, beer.
Human training to resist stresses has its strategy and tactics also. Men can predict avoiding of stress, to discuss existing stress with himself inside and make decisions. Moderate stress is positive — it is some stimulus. At moderate stress the adrenaline in the organism can be changed in its methylated form — noradrenaline. The noradrenaline is hormone of activity, creative activity including. It is interesting, that the most powerful natural methylator (so-called vitamin U) is present in great quantities in usual cabbage.
Panic Mode Syndrome
by Dianne Middleton, Calgary, AB, Canada
I’ll do anything to avoid ‘PMS’ (Panic Mode Syndrome). This is the worst form of stress for an artist to confront. We all know there’s enough stress falling on an artist’s shoulders when beginning a new piece. When I’m pushed to produce a good painting in too little a time frame, this limits the quality of what can be produced. The way I paint involves a great deal of preliminary and necessary thinking, and then planning every stroke as I go. A good art piece takes time and if I’m struggling to meet a deadline, the joy, which I should feel while painting, is replaced by a nervous fear and anxiety, sometimes bitterness and anger. Sometimes this enables a new unplanned concept to appear in the painting, but I’d much rather have an enlightened thought arrive effortlessly and out of love for the piece. When you arrive in that joy mode, it is a way of facilitating the thought process such that painting becomes easier and it is more likely to reach the finished stage. We’ve all got to find a way to cope with negative stressors so that we can produce our art in a continuous and satisfying fashion.
I disagree with your comment that an artist’s body language and posture will facilitate the ‘joy mode.’ Assuming a particular stance doesn’t seem to me to be a requirement to produce excellent art — one need only to look at the work Michelangelo produced on the ceiling in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. Suffer? — I bet he did.
Time needed to do nothing
by Marianne Mathiasen, Silkeborg, Denmark
Here in Denmark stress is a large problem. We have one of the highest rates of suicide in the world. I think stress has to do with the fact that we are not allowed to spend time doing nothing. To be a good and active person you have to be in action all the time. I like to take time as a human, as well as an artist, to not do any thing at all. I reload my battery of energy this way.
I have heard many people who have a stressful job say, “I have stress so now I have started to paint in a class once a week.” When I later ask them if it helped them, many of them tell me that they gave up on painting, it was hard to learn, and they didn’t feel the stress was less hard on them. To be an artist can be great relaxation, but from time to time it is also a painful process of learning and developing as a human.
So why can’t people relax? I think it is because we relate relaxation with laziness, and we don’t like to be called lazy. Modern people are also afraid of boredom. I think boredom is healthy, and that we as humans need it from time to time. I have kept a journal for some time now, and I have noticed that after a day of boredom I get more creative, so perhaps our brain needs a rest from time to time. The problem with boredom is that it can give you a bad conscience, we then start to feel lazy because we don’t do anything, and we set off a bad circle of feelings.
Action painting stress reliever
by Moncy Barbour, Lynchburg, VA, USA
I have found a tremendous release of stress when following in experimentation the footsteps of the late Jackson Pollock. I would cast a sixteen-foot canvas onto the floor of my studio, spray paint the desired background colour and plan my colours in sequence to paint wet on wet. Not to allow the brush to ever touch the canvas. I would take a deep breath and exhale before beginning my war dance around the fire of the canvas. An hour or more would pass and I was dizzy with speed, colour splatter mostly orchestrated and some left to chance but I was out of touch with every thing but the process. This was Action painting. Now once completion had reached the course I would stand straight and feel a pain in my back. I would be exhausted. I would be pleased. I would sit down, and the stress was all gone. That is work!
by Janet Faulhabe, Paris, France
One of the reason stress-related disorders do affect 80% of the population is actually related to diet. A good many studies have demonstrated an absolute correlation between consumption of Omega 3 essential fatty acids and incidence of depression, anxiety, and stress. Apparently in western cultures and even in Japan we don’t consume enough fish and thus not enough Omega 3, while we over-consume the other essential fatty acids, the Omega 6s. Research of O3’s effect on stress is rather recent. The studies even had to be discontinued because the effects of taking the O3s was so dramatic that ethically the studies could not be continued. If you can get more Omega 3 in your diet, your stress/anxiety/depression levels improve dramatically; primarily our brain has what it needs to handle what is happening around us without going into flight/fight mode. Instead of consuming, say, 20 Omega 6s for 1 Omega 3, we need to be 1 to 1. Linseed and colza oil are sources, as are various fishes such as sardines and herring.
Personally, I just take Omega 3 pills, basically fish oil, where the two Omega 3 acids, EPA and DHA, are in a ratio of 7 EPA to 1 DHA (as opposed to pills for lowering lipid levels which are 2 EPA to 1 DHA). As a high-stress, high-anxiety person, especially in the studio, this stuff has saved my life. Since I started taking it, my “blocks” have basically evaporated, and my ability to see myself as a competent professional has improved dramatically, not to mention my general ability to deal with life in general. Probably this doesn’t work for everyone, but I would certainly encourage anyone suffering from stress/anxiety/depression to increase Omega 3 intake in their diet.
In the Higher Elevations
oil painting on canvas
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2004.
That includes Jane Morris Wyatt who wrote, “Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of NOW puts stress, concentration, confidence in a nut shell. If all of us could just take hold of the energy within us the world would be a powerhouse.”
Also Lesley Hammocks wrote, “Simply love your twice-weekly letters. But, please, no more wolf-eating one-liners. It is simply not true statistically and has given the wolf a very bad name for many years.”