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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Relax Your Way Out of Writer’s Block – Brain Basics Part 2

Relaxing into your writing is fun and it works!

Relaxing into your writing is fun and it works!

After the last post on the neurology of resistance, many of you may be thinking “Okay, so writing resistance is normal and I don’t have to feel guilty or embarrassed. That’s a huge relief, but what do I do next? How do I get past resistance and start writing again?”

The key is the RAS — the Reticular Activating System, the brain stem’s toggle switch.

The next time you recognize you’re using your usual resistance techniques (procrastinating, distracting yourself, cleaning your house well beyond normal hygiene just so you don’t have to face the blank screen, berating yourself for not writing), remember this resistance is caused by the RAS putting your limbic system in charge.

The amygdala, a major driver of a limbic system takeover, sends more information to the cortex than it receives from the cortex. In other words, it talks more than it listens. Once engaged, it stays engaged. Which makes sense — you don’t want to be distracted in a true emergency.

But as long as you have even a small awareness that you’re resistant or stressed, you can turn things around. You can get the RAS to flip control back to the cerebral cortex. All you have to do is relax.

When your body physically relaxes, the RAS switches the limbic system off and the cortex back on. That’s why it’s vital to select a few, simple relaxation techniques in advance so you know what to do in a ‘writing emergency.’

How to Relax in a “Writing Emergency”

First of all, remember there are no real writing emergencies. We aren’t running ERs, operating rooms or the control center of a nuclear power plant. It may seem like this is a critical, defining moment in your writing career, but no one ever died for lack of words on the page.

Allow yourself a little perspective.

Breathe! Most of us breathe with only the top third of our lungs. Rapid, shallow breathing keeps the limbic system engaged.

To relax, you need to breathe deep and slow. Inhale all the way down to your belly. Hold it for a few seconds, then consciously exhale all the air and wait a few seconds. Repeat as necessary.

Consciously Tighten and Relax Your Muscles Start by consciously tightening the muscles in your feet, curling your toes and feeling the tightness in the arch and ball of your foot. Notice this tension and when you’re ready, let it go with a sigh. Then tighten the muscles in your calves and knees and continue tightening, holding and relaxing the remaining parts of your body.

If you want guidance, listen to the relaxation track of my Dancing in the Dragon’s Den Guided Imageries CD.

Play dead. Try the yoga ‘corpse’ pose where you lay flat on your back and breathe. Yoga is not only a great way to relax in the moment, it’s one of those on-going self-care practices that actually make your RAS less reactive so your cortex will be online more of the time.

Play. Creative play, what I call Process, can be as simple as coloring or doodling. Try finger painting. Play around with a harmonica. Knit. Bead. Make something out of Play-Doh. Anything that you do just to do it, without expectations of a specific outcome, will relax you. Practiced regularly, 10 or 15 minutes of Process will also make your RAS less reactive.

Surrender your expectations and be willing to write badly. Expectations cause stress and stress triggers the limbic system. Accept that your first draft, like everyone else’s, will be imperfect. So what?

Give yourself permission to write awkward, clichéd, even stupid stuff. It’s always easier to fix something that’s already on the page than it is to try to write the perfect piece out of nothing.

In addition to knowing how to relax in the moment, you also need to have on-going relaxation practices to sustain you, and we’ll talk about those in the next post.

Until then, please share your relaxation tips. How do you relax into your writing?

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7 Comments on “Relax Your Way Out of Writer’s Block – Brain Basics Part 2”

  1. jenowenby July 11, 2012 at 12:45 pm #

    Thanks for the great article. I often take a break and find something to do that doesn’t require words, like folding laundry, cleaning or going for a walk.


    • rosannebane July 11, 2012 at 12:57 pm #

      You’re welcome Jenowenby! Getting away from words for a while is an excellent strategy. Something like folding the laundry occupies just enough of our “surface mind” that our unconscious can work without interference. The trick, of course, is to make sure you get back to the writing right after the short break… If you don’t, then you’ve found a new way to do resistance. 😉



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