A Filmmaker’s “Positive” Thoughts on Stress – Part 1

Apr 22, 2015 | Industry

Each of us reacts to our life paths in different ways. I have friends who seem totally oblivious to stress. Lucky devils. On the other hand, Ive felt stress almost my whole adult life, especially when I am putting myself up for a challenge, taking a new creative path, meeting new people, calling a potential buyer to hype my projects. And sometimes I seem to experience anxiety just because I do!

I’d be lying to say that stress doesn’t color my approach to my work.

In my early 20s I hit a stress wall, punching up a high score on those psychological charts that count “stressors.” Did you move homes? Have you changed jobs? Have you taken on a new relationship? And so on. Even a vacation can be a stressor. No kidding.

Back then, I’d quit working for a salary, taking on landlord responsibilities and sharing the house with a flock of itinerant filmmakers. My wife-to-be, Wendy, moved in with me, and I started a film company with John Watson, with no cash resources, just ambition.

I ran my emotional batteries flat trying to keep all these plates spinning: tight chest, gritting jaw, panicky feelings. I felt a frequent sense of being out of control and dark forces coming at me, all without any real, hard-core issues to deal with. My anxiety seemed to revolve around things that “might” happen: My own possible failure, disasters and rejections that I imagined, zero proven realities, but they sure felt real to my body.

I decided to try to study why I felt so freaked-out. I read books that claimed they could help me cope. What I found was rather staggering: Stress is normal. It’s biologically built in to help us!

Stress is evolution’s attempt to give us predictive vision. What will happen if I go into that cave? Should we eat this fruit? Should I challenge that alpha male? Stress is our imagination harnessed to try to outguess the future. It probes with an unconscious feedback loop. Our mind’s eye sees a multiplicity of possible outcomes. We often feel them, too! Butterflies in the stomach, the flight-or-fight response… our imagination sets off our internal chemistry to ready us for action.

I’ve read studies that claim that the smarter you are the more stress you feel. Who would have thought that we artists, with big imaginations, could happily be feeding ourselves an endless cycle of frightening what-ifs and sweaty-palm maybes? As a survival mechanism, primitive fighting-or-flighting does not seem to be a useful addition to your story-pitch meeting. Or does it?

I also realized that the adrenalin produced by my anticipation of a challenge, like a pitch meeting, was actually helpful. That extra zing was like human-produced caffeine. It made me alert. It provoked me to think faster and to read the emotions of others. It made my memory better and stimulated new effective ideas in the room. I’ve learned to rely on my adrenalin to give me an edge.

Come on. How can feeling nervous be good?

Look at the bright side. We are survivors bred from millions of generations of ancestors whose nervous thinking prevented them from any major blunders before they could mate. Inherently, we are the descendants of winners, winners with great imaginations and, in some cases, very fast feet (uneaten winners)!

But why does it have to feel so uncomfortable?

From my research, something very unusual came to light — We actually get to choose how we feel under the effect of stress. We can make it feel good.

Huh? Being robbed at gunpoint or being the victim of a surprise birthday party gives your body an identical flight-or-fight physiological reaction. But we perceive that reaction in two different ways.

Adopting the right attitude can convert a negative stress into a positive one.

— Dr. Hans Selye, stress expert

Anxiety can become excitement if you value why you are experiencing the feeling. A roller-coaster ride is scary, but we love it!

If you can see your adversities as adventures, they become more enjoyable. Palpitations, sweat, excess nervous energy… we love stress when cheering on our favorite team in the play-offs. In fact, we would feel cheated if we were remote and calm while the whole season comes down to a few seconds!

Hans Selye, the late Canadian stress expert, asks us to try to see our stress as “eustress” (coined from the “eu” in euphoria), instead of “distress.” Accepting your stress, viewing it as the cost of aiming for a positive goal, changes the way you interpret your own inner chemistry.

In fact, directing a feature film for me is the most grueling, demanding, and scary process. But I see it as an adventure even though some days it is raw exhausting pain to get out of bed. But I can’t wait to do it again.

This changing of your perceptions can even apply when you are experiencing deeply dark challenges if you can find something in the experience that fits your value system.

The innovative psychologist Viktor Frankl wrote a book, Mans Search for Meaning, in which he describes being imprisoned in a concentration camp in World War II. He tried to find a positive in his captivity by studying the process. He discovered that the strong captives could die by just giving up if they lost their reason for living. And weak people could go on with the spirit of a lion if they retained a purpose, such as the will to stay alive for the sake of their children.

Everything can be taken from a man but… the last of the human freedoms to choose ones attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose ones own way.

— Viktor Frankl

Victor evolved his discovery that perceiving a purpose in adversity can harness a healthier attitude and better coping skills. He termed this process “logotherapy” and used it as a treatment to help others.

What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.

— Viktor Frankl

Both Frankl and Selye independently pointed to one powerful emotional coping mechanism, that is, to bear the stress because you are doing something you value. They both were convinced that life’s toughest challenges were far more comfortable if you could see a positive, even spiritual, goodness in your goals.

They didn’t mean that you had to become a saint. Frankly, earning money to feed your children makes that work valuable. And if you have a philanthropic goal for some of that money, too, great. But the concept that Selye called “Altruistic Egoism” was simple. If you value facing a burden to help others, the burden will seem less dark and defeating. In fact, it might transform into an ego-gratifying experience.

Let’s say you believe that the movie you want to produce is socially important. Your “passion” (remember that word?) gives you power. You will find yourself able to fight longer and stronger. And remember, only you judge what is socially important, or whatever purpose, belief, commitment, or reward that brings out your passion is right for you. Compare that feeling with trying to get a movie made that does not impassion your values. One project will feel like a mission and the other a chore.

The stress I felt in my 20s never came back as potently. I think it had to do with the time in life when I had not yet tested myself and carried many hopes, ambitions (and a delusion or two thrown in for good measure). We may be immensely creative, courageous, and industrious, but the world doesn’t know it yet. Entering the adult world means making adjustments.

A few people will become the next Steven Spielberg at 25, but others may have to take a more conventional route and should not criticize themselves if they have to take a starter job that includes making coffee and mail runs. It’s sort of like thinking we should be a billionaire at 25 and then berating ourselves for failing! I call this phase of life “your dreams hitting your realities.”

It can feel demoralizing, starting out. But the great thing about this period is that once you navigate it, everything you do is built on the foundations of your real skills, your real nature. This is concrete, compared to untested ambitions. From this point on your life lessons add up; you are building a solid personal structure. Sure you have some frustrations, failures, and doubts. But your inner artistic voice is being trained as these tests develop your problem-solving strengths.

Starting any career can be full of emotional zaps that surprise like jack-in-the-boxes. The trap can open at any time, and something scary can happen. But the next time the same trap opens and jack jerks up, the effect is far less potent. It’s called “de-conditioning.” When you’ve seen the same problem enough times it wears out its power to scare you.

But what if I fear that I’m going to lose control and freak out?

There are an unlucky few of us who can experience really panicky thoughts. These mental forms have been called “Imaginary Bears.” We do such a great job of dreaming up an unpleasant outcome (that hasn’t happened) that we can create a wondrous stress monster. Our Imaginary Bear can be such a scary creation that it triggers our internal chemistry.

We literally panic ourselves with ideas: What if I lose my job? Get rejected by someone I value? What if the story I pitch is going to get me laughed out of the room? What if I just freak out?

Because we trigger our chemistry, we tightly associate a thought with a real chemical outcome. We literally invent a Bear, and it can be so ugly we don’t want to think about it. We try to mentally push away the mind’s vision of that horrible outcome. We try to escape our Imaginary Bear. And damn it — in the process we are conditioning our body to react to defend us! The more the thing freaks us out, the more our body pours on the chemistry. Adrenalin, pounding heart, mind flipping around generating dozens of escape thoughts, gasping breath — we can experience a full stress menu as our body tries to fight and flight away from itself. We call this nasty nerve cycle a panic attack.

If we encountered a real obstacle, our mind would flow into problem-solving mode. It would become occupied, get to grips planning and strategizing (which it is really good at). But with the Imaginary Bear, you keep thinking, “What if this thing gets out of my mind cave and freaking eats me?”

So what’s the cure? Find out in Part 2 of this article next week!