Sarah* works as a magazine writer in a local publishing house. Recently, her editor handed her a last-minute assignment where she had to write a 1,000-word article in one day.
Judging from the outside, Sarah looks calm and collected but on the inside, she is screaming for help. How is she going to finish up her article? Can she do it?
Now, she is sitting in front of her laptop, thinking and concentrating hard on finishing her assignment. Every sentence she types ends with a long push on the “delete” button. The more she tries to force out the words, the harder it gets. Patience wearing thin, she feels desperate, stressed and frustrated.
(*name has been changed for privacy)
Is Sarah’s situation familiar to you?
If yes, read on. This might help you.
Why does creative constipation happen?
Creative constipation is frustrating and it attacks at the worst of time. This adds up to the stress especially when deadlines are near. Everyone, at least once in a lifetime, has experienced creative constipation; even well-known artistes such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Pablo Picasso have experienced this frustrating situation.
Although difficult, simply becoming aware of when, how and why creative constipation develops can help in overcoming this situation. Here are some contributing factors:
When experiencing a block, have you ever had these similar thoughts:
“I’m definitely getting fired!”
“My boss will hate me for this!”
“I am a bad writer. I should just quit.”
Self-doubt and self-criticism affect the best of people and when it comes to creative constipation, self-doubt is public enemy No 1. When your confidence is low, you start to have irrational thoughts. You question your ability, despite knowing that you can actually finish the assignment (and do a great job!).
2. Fear of rejection
Creative constipation creates irrational feelings. When experiencing a mental block, you become more sensitive towards your feelings.
One of them is the fear of rejection. Fear creates tension and stress, and may cause people to feel insecure that their work or ideas will not be appreciated. Negative thoughts will hold you back from your best ideas.
3. Lack of motivation
As these negative feelings linger on your mind, your motivation to finish your assignment will be affected. Your drive goes up and down and this adds up to the block that you are currently experiencing.
In other words, negative feelings from creative constipation will create stress to the body and mind. When we are stressed, the body releases stress hormones called cortisol that can affect the brain in many ways and cause damage to the neural function.
Can stress change your brain?
The answer is yes; stress can definitely change your brain. Below are a few ways stress affects your brain (adapted from The Huffington Post’s “How Stress Changes the Brain”).
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1. Stress triggers a chemical change that makes you irritable.
Do you snap easily at the smallest of mistakes when you are stressed? This is a normal reaction as stress causes irritability. Some experience forgetfulness and are often distracted when they are under pressure.
These could be signs of the destructive effects of stress in the brain. According to French researchers led by Professor Carmen Sandi, when the brain is triggered by stress, the hippocampus, which is responsible for regulating synapses will be modified. This will lead people to lose their sociability, avoid interactions with others and have damaged memory or understanding.
2. Chronic stress can shrink your brain.
We all know that stress can be detrimental to your health, but did you know that chronic stress could harm your brain’s learning capacity?
The volume of gray matter in brain regions associated with emotions, self-control and physiological functions will be reduced and will affect the brain’s medial prefrontal cortex, which is associated with emotions, self-control and physiological functions.
3. One stressful event can kill brain cells.
Ongoing stress can affect the production of new neurons in the hippocampus and may also affect the speed of connections between hippocampal cells. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found that during chronic stress, the brain produces more myelin-producing cells and fewer neurons than a typical brain would. This results in an excess of myelin, an insulating layer of protective coating around neurons in the hippocampus.
4. Stress disrupts memory by triggering the brain’s threat response.
Cortisol (or stress hormones) hinders the activity of the hippocampus and increases the size and activity of the amygdala, the brain’s main centre for emotional responses and motivation.
The amygdala is responsible for fear processing, threat perception and the fight-or-flight response. When that part of the brain is active, emotional reactions will be heightened and the ability to digest new information will be restricted.
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So, how do we overcome this?
There are various ways to overcome this challenge. Here are the top four ways of overcoming creative constipation due to stress.
1. Practise mindfulness
According to Mindful.org, mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we are doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what is going on around us.
Mindfulness also increases our capacity to observe our thoughts and to become more aware of the thinking style we are currently using. Meditation helps us to become attuned to the present moment and experience more choices around where our mind goes.
Not only does mindfulness allow us to create a balance between “freestyle” thinking and “control”, it also trains us to switch between both ways of thinking, allowing ideas to flow freely and thus, achieving the best results.
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Meditation and mindfulness are interrelated. Take a few minutes to breathe to calm your mind and increase your focus after receiving any type of assignment.
Focus on your breaths. Once you have found a few ideas, try calming your mind again with more meditation as our emotions can get in the way of creativity and create sabotaging thoughts and disturb your concentration.
When your mind is calm, the best ideas usually flow naturally into consciousness. Once they are there, pay attention to the critical thinking that surrounds the ideas. Allow your ideas to build up in a positive way and let go of any irrational negative thoughts about them.
Staring at the laptop screen seems like a good idea when you are suffering from creative constipation but the truth is, it will only make it worst. Why not give light exercises a go?
You don’t have to go to the gym as you could just do light exercises at home or in front of your desk. You could take a brief walk at the park or walk around your office building, do light yoga indoors, stretch, etc. It’s really anything to get your body moving!
Not only does exercising helps with blood circulation; it can help you open up your mind and see things at a different angle. So, get those muscles moving!
4. Stop overthinking!
It is natural to feel panicky after receiving your assignment. Take deep breaths and calm down.
In Sarah’s example, you can sit in front of your laptop and start typing out anything (and we mean anything!) that pops in your head. Do not overthink on the assignment and do not be overly-critical of the first draft. Refrain yourself from editing anything during this time. If need be, immediately create a second version.
This is not confined only for writing but you can do this for drawing, doodling and designing, too. Just let your ideas flow because eventually you will get things right.
Bringing it together
So there you have it. As frustrating as it is, try to see creative constipation as a hurdle you can overcome. It might seem difficult at first, but with a little patience, determination and self-love, you can conquer your situation!
To help you with mindfulness, AGILE will be organising the Search Inside Yourself (SIY) programme on 10–11 November 2017. This programme helps you develop concentration, creativity, improve self-awareness, and enhance self-confidence and empathy. Leaderonomics.com readers can enjoy a 20% discount on the programme with the promocode LEAD20. So, hurry! To find out more about this Google-born SIY programme, check this out.