Listening to a podcast from a neuroscientist the other day gave me a new perspective on the creative life. The host and guest talked in their introduction about how purposely stressing our bodies for short periods of time was beneficial for our brains and mental health. The examples given were vigorous exercise, fasting, cold and heat exposure. *
This resonated with me because I do three of these on a regular basis.
There were very scientific reasons given that I would not attempt to explain but the gist went something like this. Humans were programmed to be in a state of awareness as a survival mechanism. Think of all the dangers humans faced in the beginning: being eaten by a predator, starving to death or dying as a result of exposure to the elements. Even being ostracized by a tribe and left alone would result in death. As we evolved, many of these primal dangers faded away. Yet our brains have not yet shifted to differentiating real danger from imagined.
I have heard this before from psychologists and it does make sense. I have experienced first hand the feelings of anxiety about an imagined event compared to the very real fear of say being involved in an auto accident. The adrenaline rush is very similar. According to the experts, the problem is that we don’t have as many real events to protect ourselves from and so the brain replicates the cycle of fear/adrenaline rush. The idea of giving ourselves a certain amount of daily stress is that we are exercising this part of the brain. The message seems clear: too much time spent in the comfort zone is not good for us.
I readily admit to being a big fan of the comfort zone and nowhere is this more apparent than in my creative life. Just the idea of sitting down to write creates discomfort. Naturally, procrastination is a huge issue. I can’t tell you how many drawers get organized at the precise time I’d scheduled writing. I want to apply some of the stress exercises that I’m already practicing and apply them to my creative practice. To help me visualize, I tried correlating the main exercises I do with it’s creative equivalent
Exercise: Writing Habit
Exercise is the easiest self imposed stressor for me because I developed the habit in my twenties and have more or less kept it going throughout my life.
The creative equivalent to exercise would be to sit down to write every single day. Ideally, it would be done early in the day and without much planning. Sort of like putting on running shoes and stepping out before I even have a chance to think of doing something else. When I’m running, I’m not thinking about whether I will enjoy it or whether it will be a good run. I hope it will be all of that and, sometimes it is. I do it regardless. Also, the thing about exercise is that even if there is an obstacle in the day, I know I will figure out how to squeeze it in. I don’t get too attached to one particular exercise. This is the level I want to reach in writing – it’s automatic. I get it done despite anything else going on as well as having an array of writing exercises (new story outlines, writing drafts, editing, blogging) vs becoming rigid about what qualifies as writing.
Fasting : Writing Stories
I started this practice back in 2017. I usually don’t eat as soon as I wake up and then I stop eating pretty early. I try to have only two standard meals per day. Every three months, I do a fast mimicking program for 5 days. It’s basically a reduced calorie program. It’s hard. But every single time I have not regretted it.
As far as the creative counterpart, I would compare it to sticking with a writing project (a story, in my case) when things get uncomfortable. When I’m fasting, there is always this moment of desperation when I’m either feeling very hungry or imagining that I am. I start asking myself why I’m doing this and I think of all the reasons I should go eat something. This is similar to that point in writing a story when I just have no idea what happens next. I am literally grasping for sustenance at that point. It is so uncomfortable and I have quit so many times.
Cold showers: Sharing my work
This is the newest and by far the hardest stressor I’ve started putting myself through. This is how it goes: I have already decided that this is good for me and I’m doing it. I am determined. Then, right before, I feel like doing anything else but that. When I do go through with it, it is extremely uncomfortable. And yet, it goes by very quickly. I just dot it and move on with my life.
Hands down, this mirror sharing my writing with others. I’ve only done it sporadically for a short period and, each time, it’s painful. But it’s quick. And I can already tell that the more I do it, the more adapted I will get to that feeling.
I’m excited to see how these habits will help my creative brain.