We all know that stress is bad for us.
Chronic stress. Pandemic stress. Stress in all its many guises has been the subject of thousands of articles, blog posts, and news reports since lockdown started early last year.
I’m not talking about the “Oh, there’s a car coming at me at 50 mph, I’d better get out of the way” kind of stress, which is good and can save your life.
I’m talking about the grinding, chronic, never-ending stress we experience when we have to deal with something unpleasant that we have no control over. You know, like a global pandemic.
For our distant ancestors, stress was a benefit, something that helped them survive.
If you came across a tiger unexpectedly, your body responded quickly. Adrenaline flooded your system, your heartbeat and pulse increased, airways in the lungs opened wider, and non-emergency systems like digestion shut down temporarily.
More oxygen was sent to the brain, making you more alert and sharpening sight and hearing. That stress response happens fast. According to Understanding the Stress Response from Harvard Health Publishing:
All of these changes happen so quickly that people aren’t aware of them. In fact, the wiring is so efficient that the amygdala and hypothalamus start this cascade even before the brain’s visual centers have had a chance to fully process what is happening.
This rapid response system allowed you to respond to the danger quickly and strongly with either fight or flight. Once the danger was averted your heart rate returned to normal, your breathing slowed, and the flood of adrenaline stopped.
On the other hand, ongoing stress triggers a series of hormones culminating in the release of cortisol, whose job it is to keep your body on high alert. The constant stress we routinely experience today keeps cortisol levels elevated.
Elevated cortisol can lead to insomnia (your body’s on high alert, after all), depression, anxiety, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, weight gain, and more. It compromises your immune system, so you get sick more often and more seriously.
Of prime importance to creators, chronic stress also leaves visible imprints on your brain and affects both plasticity and resilience. For example, your hippocampus (which is responsible for things like learning and memory) shrinks. Stress also affects the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for focusing your attention, predicting the results of your actions, future planning, and impulse control.
Chronic stress causes growth in the amygdala, the part of your brain that regulates your emotions, especially fear. The end result of chronic stress — you can’t focus, plan, or control your impulses and you’re more scared of more stuff more often.
Crappy work situations, incessant noise, bad relationships, and uncertainty about the future are just a few examples of sources of chronic stress.
Stress is a Creativity Killer
Unfortunately for knowledge workers and professionals, stress also does a number on creativity.
This is necessary when we’re in the chased-by-a-tiger kind of stress — that’s definitely not the time to be wondering what rhymes with “arbitrary” or trying to work out that tricky chord progression. But the grueling, long-lasting kinds of stress and the changes they make in your brain short-circuit your creativity over the long haul.
Connecting the Dots: Your Brain and Creativity, a delightful article written for young people, defines creativity in a way that can be measured and studied:
While there are many components of creativity, including originality, pleasure, value, process, and imagination, the definition that scientists use to study creativity puts those components together to say that creativity is an ability to produce something that is both novel (or original) and has utility (is valuable to someone). This definition allows scientists to develop testable hypotheses about how creativity arises from the human brain.
When you’re creating, your frontal cortex stays busy. The brain uses its working memory, planning, abstraction, and cognitive flexibility during creative work.
Other parts of the brain get involved with creativity as well — the hippocampus, white matter (which creates connections between different parts of the brain), and the basal ganglia (where skills and memories of how to do things reside).
Not surprisingly, these are all parts of the brain adversely affected by chronic stress.
Mitigating Your Stress is a Must
There are things you can (and should) do to mitigate the effects of stress. Start with the three most obvious, the ones you have a lot of control over.
- Clean up your diet. Embrace a mostly plant-based diet, and ditch processed foods.
- Exercise most days, outside when you can. Try to get out into nature every day.
- Make whatever changes you need to get a good night’s sleep. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day.
Is there an obvious external stressor you’re dealing with? Figure out a way to deal with it.
A big one for me this past year has been noise.
We’re currently living in a condo, and every Monday and Friday the landscapers come in with their mowers, blowers, power saws, etc. It’s awful.
Before lockdown, I just planned to work elsewhere, so on Mondays and Fridays you’d find me at the library or the coffee shop instead of my home office. During lockdown that became impossible.
I had to find another solution.
So, on Mondays and Fridays I made sure my noise-cancelling headphones were at hand, and I use them. In fact, I even have them on right now. I like classical music when I’m working, so I subscribed to SiriusXM and I stream their Symphony Hall channel into my ears while I write.
Some stressors aren’t so easy to fix. Things like pandemic uncertainty, or sharing your space with your spouse who’s now also working from home, and your kids who are suddenly not in school.
A New Way to Deal with Financial Stress
During normal times, financial uncertainty is the number one source of stress for Americans, according to the American Psychological Association. So if you want to give your creativity a boost, get on top of it.
There are only two ways to overcome financial uncertainty: earn more, or spend less. If earning more is doable without adding huge amounts of stress, go for it. But even if you can earn more, you may want to follow along here.
During the past year we’ve seen significant numbers of people in the US moving from high-cost cities like New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle to lower-cost alternatives. Since they were working from home anyway, why not?
Someone moving from New York to Vermont could afford bigger living quarters at a fraction of the cost, and reduce their overall budget by 50% or more in some cases. Ditto someone going from San Francisco to Boise Idaho.
When you have a location-independent personal enterprise, that built-in mobility becomes a huge benefit. You can reduce your cost of living even more dramatically by moving overseas.
Wherever you live now, there’s a comparable (or better!) place you can live for less in another country. A recent article from Live and Invest Overseas compares the costs of buying a home in a US location versus a comparable house in a similar environment overseas:
- Sarasota Florida ($374,900) vs Quebrado, Brazil ($97,000)
- Austin, Texas ($599,999) vs Medellin, Colombia ($172,000)
- Charleston, South Carolina ($579,900) vs Porto, Portugal ($390,000)
- Prescott, Arizona ($520,000) vs Boquete, Panama ($265,000)
- Venice Beach, California ($1 million for a 2-bedroom, off-the-beach condo) vs Mazatlan, Mexico ($250,000 for a luxury 2-bedroom condo on the beach)
And while housing costs are generally the biggest single item in your budget, you’ll see big savings in other areas of your life as well.
All facets of medical care — doctors, hospitals, prescriptions — are astonishingly less expensive overseas, and often of higher quality.
You’ll also save on internet, groceries, and entertainment. In many world-class cities, you can attend the symphony and other musical performances for little to nothing.
Transportation’s cheaper as well, and it’s often feasible to get around comfortably without a car of your own.
Many North Americans even find themselves able to hire household help overseas, without making a big dent in their budget.
Choose the right overseas location — or rotate among several — and you’ll be able to live a full, rich life without the accompanying stress we consider normal in North America.
I Did It, and So Can You
Just in case you think I’m preaching a fantasy, I actually did leave the U.S. during the last crisis we collectively faced. And it worked like a charm.
After my job melted away in 2009, it quickly became obvious that I wasn’t going to find another job in that place at that time, so I returned to freelancing.
I started by signing up with a content mill just to exercise my flabby writing skills. When given a specific assignment, I could do the research and the writing and turn in an acceptable product.
Unfortunately, at $10 per article (yes, really), it wasn’t a sustainable strategy and I knew it.
That’s where my stress-induced lack of creativity really hurt me. I knew what I needed to do to seek out clients, but I just couldn’t pull myself together to do it.
It took a huge life change — an international move, to the low-cost Republic of Panama — for me to de-stress enough to get my creative juices flowing again.
In April, 2012 my husband and I traded our typical American rat-race life, which included a mortgage, two cars, etc., etc., for a comfortable three-bedroom, two-bath, furnished $400/month rental house with a yard in Panama.
He had turned 62, and started collecting Social Security. In Panama we were able to live very comfortably on that single Social Security Check.
Boom … our financial pressure disappeared. And yet, it still took several months for me to relax and start feeling like myself again.
I moved to Panama that March, and by July I felt well enough to take a course, which is another good strategy for rekindling creativity.
The course had a social component in the form of an online forum for participants. A group of us spent a lot of time in the forum, bouncing ideas around and providing friendship and support.
At the same time, I was meeting new people and forming in-person social networks. In fact, we had a better and more active social life in Panama than we’ve ever had anywhere else. Guess what — positive, ongoing social interactions provide another avenue for reducing stress!
It didn’t take long before I had an idea, which turned into my WordPress Building Blocks website and business. . . which allowed us to move back to the US a couple years later when my husband wanted to be closer to his elderly parents.
And now our international stress-reduction method has apparently rubbed off on others in my family.
My granddaughter just left Seattle for Tbilisi, Georgia. She and her cat swapped out a tiny studio apartment for a three-bedroom house at a 75% monthly savings in rent alone.
My son moved from Seattle to Antigua, and his monthly fixed costs are down between 50-60%, even though Antigua is not a low-cost destination. Imagine that … paradise is cheaper than your current stress-inducing existence.
Just Breathe. . .
You really can’t appreciate the benefits of living without financial stress until you’ve experienced it. When you can position yourself so that you don’t have to even think about where the rent/mortgage is coming from, both your body and brain relax.
It may take a little time, but one morning you’ll wake up bursting with ideas again. You know, like you used to. You can breathe again. Ahh ….