Go get 'em. By Big Cartel.

Why Stress Management Matters for Creatives

As a doer, maker, and dreamer, you give us all an incredible morale boost. Whether or not it always feels like it, you and your creative career are assets to society.

Through your work, you translate emotions into images and objects while inventing new solutions to old problems. Creatives also tend to be more empathetic and emotionally literate, providing much-needed relief and support to everyone else.

Small businesses are a boon to the U.S. economy, too - according to Forbes, small businesses employ over 50% of the working population, and they’ve generated over 65% of net new jobs since 1996.

While that’s all well and good, it’s no secret that being the sole proprietor of your own business isn’t exactly a piece of cake. The paperwork alone is enough to make someone pull their hair out, not to mention the intensity of business planning, tracking expenses, and making sure there’s money left over to put food on the table. And you have to do all that without sacrificing the mission of your art and the quality of your product.

Here’s what happens to your brain when you’re stressing out: in a taxing situation, your brain releases a hormone called cortisol. When high levels of cortisol hang around in your brain for extended periods of time, it not only increases the number of neural connections in your amygdala (the part of your brain where fear is responded to), it also decreases the amount of electric signals in your hippocampus (the part of your brain where stress is controlled). In short, as cortisol levels increase, so does your noggin’s ability to deal with it. Too much cortisol can actually result in the shrinking of your prefrontal cortex (that’s where your brain makes decisions, focuses, and makes judgements.) This destructive hormone can cause fewer new brain cells to be made within the hippocampus, which can affect your brain’s ability to learn and remember.

All of this, obviously, can really harsh your productivity mellow.

If you’re running a business on your own, you’ve got to wear about 100 hats in a single day. You are single-handedly performing every role that a larger company producing a similar product has hired at least one person (or one whole team) to do. After you make your art, you’ve got to be the head marketer, salesperson, web developer, accountant, and spokesperson.

It’s a lot to juggle, especially if you work from home and can’t easily step away from your workspace. You might often find yourself up in the middle of night trying to stave off thoughts of that spreadsheet you still haven’t updated or the paint you desperately need to order. And if you’re running your business with very little help, it can feel especially difficult to manage your stress when you aren’t sharing it with anyone else.

That’s why stress management is so crucial for creative folks; there’s a lot more riding on your shoulders, and the world needs your creative energy to keep flowing.

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I find myself in the throes of stress weekly, and it usually has something to do with my own internal narrative. My mind specializes in focusing on the negatives and ignoring the positive, a quality that is a) caused by stress and b) exacerbated by it.

When I find myself stuck with writer’s block and zero motivation, my number one tactic is to write out a (short and manageable!) to-do list, including one low-hanging-fruit task that I can accomplish in two seconds and check off right after. Looking at a partially completed task list instead of a wide open one usually pumps up the motivation to get moving on more important matters, like work.

When my to-do list trick isn’t quite enough to quell my anxiety, I turn inward. Specifically, I use a stress-busting breathing technique I learned through my years of amateur yoga study. Now, if you’re not a yogi and never hope to be, hear me out. Conscious breathing in general has been shown to lower your heart rate and assist in the battle against cortisol. Plus, giving yourself a few minutes to do nothing but sit and breathe can really turn your day around.

Nadi Shodhana, commonly known as alternate nostril breathing, is an ancient practice known to balance out the two sides of the brain by alternating the nostrils you inhale and exhale through. (Learn all about it in this video.) Whether you try it for thirty seconds or thirty minutes, any amount of alternate nostril breathing will benefit your state of mind.

If a good session of conscious breathing doesn’t do the trick, finding a friend, journal, or therapist can be pivotal in maintaining your mental health. It’s easy to forget how important expressing frustration is, especially if you’re running a business on your own.

Though I am not nearly as consistent as I should be, I find that journaling about even the most petty frustrations of my day can put my thoughts into perspective really fast. Emptying out all of that brain clutter into a receptacle like a journal or another human frees up some space in my head to organize and focus.

If you’ve vented as much as you can manage and you’re still feeling the pressure of a mounting project or deadline, don’t be afraid to ask for help. An extra pair of eyes on your latest piece or a friend helping you pack orders can be the perfect antidote to a tough week.

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Another common source of my stress is the suspicion that I am failing at my work and I should be further along in my career than I am. This snowballs into the dreaded emotions of fear and shame, squelching my enthusiasm to keep working.

To pull myself out of this hole, I’ll check in with some of my favorite freelance blogs to read about what my peers are up to. Often, we share the same stressors. The echo is a reassurance that I’m on the right path.

Personally, a lot of my stress can be chalked up to the feeling of loneliness as I navigate a sea of successful entrepreneurs and large businesses that I’m ostensibly competing with. But then I remember: half of us work for small businesses in this country, meaning there is no conceivable way that we’re “alone” in our work.

When you have emails to write and taxes to do, stress management may be the last thing on your mind. In reality, it deserves just as much attention as those desk duties, for the health of your business and yourself.

Jillian Conner is a freelance writer living in Vermont. She’s an avid backyard birder, snack enthusiast, and aspiring shepherdess. You can follow her on Instagram.