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The Journey of Clay and Stress - Part 1

Updated: Dec 29, 2021

Charlotte, a trainee with Impart under the SGUT traineeship scheme, shares with us her reflections on pottery and pacing herself.


How hard could making a bowl out of clay be? The answer: incredibly. In figures I could quantify it as three separate chunks of kneaded-out clay, two and a half hours, lots of water, and tons of guidance from my pottery instructor.


Around and about the time, I was penning my reflections (this very piece you are reading!) on the talk Pacing Yourself: Taking care of ourselves as we care for others and champion our causes”. Organized by Impart in collaboration with the NVPC Community Matters team, Narash shared about stress, burnout, and coping, all while referencing this idea of ‘mental health as a vase’. Surreptitiously, my best friend of more than a decade messaged me out of the blue with a sudden urge to attend a pottery wor


That’s how I found myself at 3ArtsxCenter Pottery at four in the afternoon on a Saturday -- the first time I was out of the house in two whole months since the heightened measures of May ‘21-- for my first ever electric wheel pottery class.



Image of clump of lay on electric wheel.
Step one in pottery: centering the clay. (It’s a lot harder than it looks)


Full disclosure, I was never all that craft-y. That was always Jae’s (my friend’s) kind of beat. Nevertheless, I didn’t think that I’d be all that terrible at it. Like I said before, how hard could it be? Well, it took me two tries to even get the clay to stick to the wheel. The third try made it to what I call the ‘doughnutting’ stage where you lightly punch your thumbs down into the center of your clay to begin your bowl-making. It was going pretty well I would say… right up to when my nail jabbed the side of it and ruined all my progress. Spoiler alert: I rage cut my nails right down to the flesh when that happened.



Photo of hands and nails cut for pottery.
The aftermath of rage-cutting my nails.



I was feeling… kinda stressed out. Ironic, really, because I’d been hearing about how soothing pottery-making was and how it was a de-stressing activity. It was only when I was going over the whole process after when I realized exactly what kind of stress I was dealing with.


See, in the same way pieces of hand-sculpted pottery differ, not all stress is the same. There are actually four kinds of stress: eustress, acute, episodic, and chronic.


Eustress is good stress. It’s a motivational stress that spurs us on. This can be the anticipation we feel when you start a new job or embark on a challenging (but rewarding) project. Or, in my case, the stress that I felt throughout my very new experience of moulding clay.


My clay-moulding ‘good’ stress, however, is certainly different from acute stress, which is short-term stress that stems from specific triggers like exams or job interviews. Episodic stress arises when we experience acute stress frequently. For example, a single parent or primary caregiver with tons of responsibility and a heavy workload would likely experience episodic stress. Finally, there is chronic stress, which is constant and persistent stress for prolonged periods. This is described to be a grinding stress, day by day, that occurs as a result of ongoing issues.


Identifying each type of stress is the first step to dealing with whatever stress it is we face. How we treat acute stress (in the form of, say, a huge term paper) would differ from how we address chronic stress (from a toxic work environment, for example). However, besides identifying different kinds of stress, understanding how stress impacts us (and how much stress impacts you) matters.


Stress is not inherently bad. It’s the abundance of stress wherein the problem lies.


One of the things I found surprising when trying my hand at electric wheel pottery was the wheel itself. Watching someone manipulating clay on it, you’d never realize how fast those things can go, and with the lightest touch of a lever, how fast speeds can fluctuate. Several times the teacher would come around to me with comments of ‘too fast’ or ‘too slow’. For optimal results, a Goldilocks-esque ‘just right’ needs to be achieved. Much like toeing the line between too much and too little speed on the wheel, the point where optimum stress tips into too much stress (overload) is a delicate process.


While in theory it sounds easy, actually determining where I am when it comes to my stress levels has always been significantly challenging. What I found pretty useful and strangely eye-opening was the stress curve. Suddenly I had a visual representation of stress in its volume. Like the red of a thermometer ticking upwards, I could trace my stress on the curve as assignments and tasks piled on from laid back, to fatigue, to exhaustion, and even anxiety and panic.


Stress Curve
The stress curve (from Vectormine/Shutterstock.com)


On a stress curve, where stress levels are plotted against work performance, optimum stress (and optimum work performance) peaks just before the point of fatigue. This is the stage where stress is both manageable and positively motivates you. For me, I would say that my stress from my pottery experience lay somewhere in this zone. I would say that I was stressed out in my endeavors to manipulate my clay from a blob into a blob with a hole in the center and, yes, I was more stressed than before I started the class but I wouldn’t say that I was super stressed or even fatigued. Overall, the stress was manageable.



Manipulation of clay on electric pottery wheel.
The ‘doughnut-ing’ step that I struggled with the most.


But what happens when the stress is not manageable?


When the point of fatigue is passed, optimum stress moves into overload; and suddenly the metaphorical wheel of life spins faster. This is the stage where there is too much stress for someone to handle, and as more stress piles up (and the spinning gets faster) performance drops and exhaustion begins to creep in. And if stress is not handled here? Performance drops even further as we move into burnout. The clay flies right off of the wheel. Splat. It’s on the floor now.


But just like that piece of clay, that eventually got recycled, the mal-effects of stress are something that can be recovered from.


So how does someone deal with stress? A quick google search yields results like ‘a relaxing bath’, ‘breathing exercises’, and generally ‘taking care of yourself’. The question this leaves me with is then: what does it mean to take care of myself?

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