Painted wooden figures on sale in Cojutepeque, El Salvador. Art need not be a business, but can relieve stress. Photo: Reuters

Life and work can be stressful in developed countries today, and trying to find ways to combat stress can be a stress in itself. Just how do we combat job and business stress? Stress is part of life, and certainly part of our working lives. There are two different kinds of stress – acute stress and chronic stress.

Acute stress triggers our flight-or-fight reflexes, how we react to situations such as being held at gunpoint, or falling down a flight of stairs. Chronic stress is much more common, especially because of our city lives and busy work. Chronic stress attacks us for a long time, and causes the buildup of cortisol (stress hormone), which in turn can cause inflammations, lower immunity, and even heart problems.

According to CareerCast, a job-seeking site, airline pilots have one of the most stressful jobs, probably because of the tremendous demand for air travel and the shortage of pilots worldwide. Stress is straining many developed nations, such as Japan. It is sad to read about karoshi (過勞死), or “death due to overwork,” in Japan, South Korea and other Asian countries where working more than 60 hours is apparently acceptable. And that is not a good sign: A Health Plus piece says those who work 61 to 70 hours a week have a 42% higher likelihood of developing coronary heart disease.

The call for work/life balance

As a human-resource (human capital) practitioner, I know that work/life balance is a strong consideration for many job seekers, especially millennials. For baby-boomers, corporate culture and excessive change may be the top worry according to a piece in British newspaper  The Telegraph, while in the millennial age group, 69% worry about work/life balance.

There are many ways to find a work/life balance, including through hobbies, serving charities or religious institutions, teaching others pro bono, or even attempting more esoteric and extreme sports such as skydiving and aviation.

But art holds a special place for me, and I believe it can be very therapeutic for many, as seen in the media where adults are doodling in coloring books. Coloring books can be a nice introduction to the fringes of art, but creating your own art is a whole new meditation and therapy in itself.

I had not painted for 36 years since I finished art studies in 1979 at Singapore’s Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, until one fine day, I bought a calligraphy brush pen and an A5-size sketchbook and tried to paint again. The initial results were disappointing, to put it kindly. But the more I persisted, the better I got, until eventually I was followed on social media, where I received a request from a government-run non-profit to teach painting to retired people. The adage that “practice makes perfect” rings true.

To me, art is therapy, and I believe anyone can paint, just as there is a proliferation in adult coloring books that can be a transition to actually painting. There is a procedural progress when it comes to art – you start, and you fumble, and then slowly you progress.

Chinese brush painting (寫意 xieyi style, or 墨繪 or sumi-e in Japanese) is different from Western painting styles in that you can more easily create reasonable art as long as you are bold enough to commit ink to paper. You see, the xieyi school of Chinese brush painting does not necessitate realism, but merely the minimalist expression of an idea –quite unlike most classical Western art where realism is one of the requirements.

This means that xieyi brush painting, at least on the fundamental and most basic level, is accessible even to people with little or no art education. A related field is Chinese calligraphy, using brush pens or even fountain pens. It is extremely calming trying to pen Chinese calligraphy, or some minimalist Chinese ink painting. There are even travel itineraries that offer calligraphy or painting lessons when you travel to Japan.

Can anyone do this? I will let you in on a little secret. These days, I simply pack an A5-size sketchbook and a bunch of brush pens, and I practice calligraphy and painting in a cafe, even if I travel. The sketchbook and brush pens take up little weight and space, will pass any travel gantry (these days, carrying a tablet is getting more troublesome), and will readily serve my whim to reduce stress by writing or painting any time I decide to.

It is not about how well we paint or write, but the mindful and calming process of creation. In the end, I can assure you that you will leave behind the nerves and find energy to battle the next work challenge.

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Seamus Phan

Seamus Phan is a professional speaker, published author, and artist. He straddles between the creative and technology spheres, and has great interest in studying Asian cultures, philosophies, leadership, and branding. On the side, he is an artist specializing in Chinese brush painting.

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