Things to Love About Life…or: Why Stress Hurts Performance

This post is part of an ongoing series (first mentioned here) about looking for what’s going right in my writing life. It’s so easy to focus on everything else, don’t you think? On rejections, failed queries, long hours, or negative feedback…and yet, when we start looking for it, there are so many things to celebrate. I have an ulterior motive in all this: to increase my “positivity,” as defined by Barbara Fredrickson in her book of the same name. (Take the positivity quiz here.) Positivity is like a many-fingered vine, its tendrils twisting through our mood, productivity, family harmony, stress responses, creativity, and more. Join me in my journey to boost positivity, and along the way find more joy in writing and life!

It’s really hit me this week: when I write about what I love about the writing life, I’m writing what I love about life.

Tatters-smileemoticon Photo by Tatters:) on Flickr Creative Commons

When you think about it, the two aren’t that different. When I struggle with mood in my daily life, it’s often because I’m struggling in my writing life and vice versa. When I search for what’s going “right” in writing, the very act of looking shines joy on the rest of my life, too.

And as tempting as it is to claim that this connection exists because I’m a writing creative-type, I see this relationship everywhere I look.

Our feelings of success or failure at work spill over into our lives outside of work. The result? Stress hurts performance, creativity, and productivity.

Positivity in one life arena pulls us up, whereas negativity in another life arena drags us down.

John Medina sums it up in his book Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School:*

BrainRules-Paperback_NYT-redband.indd BRAIN RULE RUNDOWN
from the Brain Rules website, Rule #8—bold added for emphasis

Rule #8: Stressed brains don’t learn the same way.

  • Your brain is built to deal with stress that lasts about 30 seconds. The brain is not designed for long term stress when you feel like you have no control. The saber-toothed tiger ate you or you ran away but it was all over in less than a minute. If you have a bad boss, the saber-toothed tiger can be at your door for years, and you begin to deregulate. If you are in a bad marriage, the saber-toothed tiger can be in your bed for years, and the same thing occurs. You can actually watch the brain shrink.
  • Stress damages virtually every kind of cognition that exists. It damages memory and executive function. It can hurt your motor skills. When you are stressed out over a long period of time it disrupts your immune response. You get sicker more often. It disrupts your ability to sleep. You get depressed.
  • The emotional stability of the home is the single greatest predictor of academic success. If you want your kid to get into Harvard, go home and love your spouse.
  • You have one brain. The same brain you have at home is the same brain you have at work or school. The stress you are experiencing at home will affect your performance at work, and vice versa.

By looking for what’s going right in our work—whether you work as a writer, manager, barista, salesperson, or mechanic—we’re improving our ability to perform everywhere in our lives.

Are you waiting for the "thing to love" in this post? Here it is…

This week, I love the existence of writers like John Medina. Medina is a scientist who could choose to live in his ivory research tower, making cool discoveries and sharing esoteric information only other scientists. Instead, he is passionate about bringing the laboratory data into the real world.

He is passionate about making a real difference. To do so, he’s created a book that’s funny, accessible, memorable, and full of useful ideas and suggestions.

I love that my work—which happens to be writing—can make a difference in people’s lives. Whether I’m writing a article, blog post, short story, poem, or novel, I love the possibility that those words will fly out into the world and touch someone I might never know or meet. I love that my words can change the world.

When discouragement strikes, which it will, we can look for the things that are going right in our lives—like the fact that we’re making the world a better place. What’s going right in your life right now? How will you remember it when you need a pick-up?

* I highly recommend this book for anyone who needs to learn, teach, give presentations, or harness creativity. And although I wouldn’t usually recommend an audio book for such information-dense content, the addition of extensive online resources makes the text extremely accessible in audio as well as written format. Plus, if you get the audio book, you get to hear Medina’s cheerful voice. It made me feel like we were sitting on my front porch, chatting about how the brain works.

The hidden price of "productivity" every writer needs to know -

You’ve probably read the same tips I have: Have a smart phone? Check Facebook while standing in line at the post office! Respond to Twitter messages while waiting for your dentist! Catch up on your news feed while sitting on the pot! For years, I thought the path to increased productivity was to squeeze in MORE–more […]


  1. Wendy L. Conger says

    Agree! When we feel so really stressed in life. We should try and must look and think on the lighter or positive side. That will uplift yourself! :)

  2. says

    I’m pretty sure I have this book on my wish list already, but I will move it up toward the top! All of this makes perfect sense, but we are all so used to being stressed most of the time that we often don’t question how it’s affecting us in areas of our lives that may not seem directly related to the stress. Love the bit about how to get your kid into Harvard. Kids are incredibly stressed these days, too.

    • says

      I’ve realized lately that the single best thing I can do for my kids is to be less stressed–which is incredibly difficult to accomplish! When I’m happier, though, the entire household is happier–perhaps because I’m quicker to compliment, listen, and sympathize, and slower to judge, criticize, and complain. Who knew one person could have such an impact?

      I’d definitely recommend this book. It’s one of those rare ones that mixes sound advice (with plenty of research information to back it up) with an incredibly accessible writing style.

      From the title of your post, it sounds like this topic has been on your mind, too. I’ll have to go check it out!

  3. says

    This is such a great post!

    My husband is a scientist practitioner, he focuses on biomechanics and muscle research. One of his most consistent findings? Stress is bad for the body, as well as the mind. Stress leads to inflammation, and ultimately, disease and injury.

    So, say no to stress, indeed! This is a really great reminder. I’m going to go add Medina’s book to my TBR list. Thank you!

  4. says

    Ah, so stress really is bad for our brains. Looks like a great read, thanks for pointing it out. And yeah, I always say if I’m writing, the rest of my world can be falling apart and on some level I’ll be happy. And the reverse is also true–if I’m not writing, everything can be great but I’ll never be 100% content.

  5. says

    As a teacher, I know we are always trying to lower the stress level of our students for more a more effective learning environment. On the other side of the coin, teachers are awful at watching their own stress levels.