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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.

Are You Spinning In a Stress Spiral of Death?


Okay, that’s a bit dramatic; let’s make that the stress spiral of creative death.

What Do Writers Have to Stress About?

As writers, we have plenty to stress about: the craft challenges of writing effectively, our fears of rejection, the vulnerability writing requires, accepting the uncertainty that is a necessary part of creativity.

As if that’s not enough, we also wrestle with ever-increasing expectations that we will not only write, but also be available 24/7/365 to build and constantly expand a platform, follow hundreds if not thousands of other writers, readers and publishing insiders on multiple social media platforms, plan, develop and execute marketing and publicity for our writing, stay current in reading in our preferred genres, and on and on and on.

Your Brain Under the Influence of Stress

This kind of mental and emotional stress can easily flip the brain into survival mode. The limbic system triggers our freeze-fight-or-flight instincts. (more about limbic system takeovers in chapter 2 of Around the Writer’s Block and here)

Survival mode is perfect when we need lightning-fast, instinctual reactions to avoid physical dangers like an oncoming car, a charging rhino or a coiled snake.

But seriously, how many truly life-threatening hazards are there in your writing space?

To face writing challenges, we need to calmly reflect, reason and see new solutions. In other words, we need our cortex, the part of the brain that does creative work.

We need to be at our creative best, but unfortunately, stress engages the part of the brain that is the worst at creative, innovative thinking. Usually, you eventually relax enough for your limbic system to stand down and your creative cortex to re-engage.

Chronic Stress Literally Rewires Your Brain

When stress goes from occasional to chronic, we start sliding down the Stress Spiral.

The more time we spend stressed out and in survival mode, the more active the limbic system becomes. This increased activity strengthens connections among neurons in the limbic system. This in turn increases the likelihood that the limbic system will engage and stay engaged.

In other words, the limbic system dismisses the cortex’s creative abilities, seizes control and hangs on to control for dear life. Things we could shrug off if we weren’t in a chronic stress state trigger more frequent limbic system takeovers.

The more often we react from the limbic system, the more the limbic system becomes the default state, keeping our brain in a near-constant survival mode.

At the same time, activity in the cortex decreases, which weakens the connections between neurons in the cortex. It gets harder and harder to employ the cortex’s executive functions to evaluate, recall similar situations, form goals and devise plans, anticipate outcomes, motivate ourselves and discover creative solutions.

Assuming You’ve Failed Only Makes It Worse

Those expectations that writers can and should always being doing more to further our writing career can make us feel like we’re failing somehow. Without the cortex’s ability to reflect, it doesn’t even occur to us to question if the expectations are realistic.

Perceived failure triggers the lateral habenula, which reduces our energy and ability to focus and makes us less willing to try.

Desperation Drives You Down the Stress Spiral

“I have to get this done” can be a reflection of your priorities – “I have get THIS done.” But it can also reflect your desperation – “I HAVE to get this done.”

The more desperate you feel about not being able to create the way you need to, the more stress you feel, the more your limbic brain will push your cortex aside and the less able you are to create. You are spinning down the Stress Spiral.

How to Stop Spinning and Get Off the Stress Spiral

How do you reverse this awful cycle? Here’s a hint: when I return from vacation next week I’ll be better prepared to show you how to reverse the Stress Spiral in the next post. Until then, try these suggestions for short-term relief and keep breathing deep and slow.

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  1. Pulling Out of the Writer’s Stress Spiral of Death | Bane of Your Resistance - June 8, 2018

    […] last post explained how chronic stress rewires the brain to make the limbic system more reactive and the cortex less active. The more stress we feel, the […]

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