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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.

Pulling Out of the Writer’s Stress Spiral of Death

© Can Stock Photo / konradbak

 My 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 more we react from the limbic system, the more we rely on the limbic system, the less creative we can be and more stressed we feel.

How do we escape this Stress Spiral of Creative Death? A vital first step is recognizing that what’s happening in our brain is physiological. Our limbic system is doing it’s supposed to do — it’s just doing it at the wrong time. This isn’t about lack of will power, discipline or motivation, because those abilities come from the cortex and the cortex is not calling the shots.

Escaping the Stress Spiral before we crash is not something we can will ourselves to do. We can’t simply decide to not be stressed anymore.

We can get out of the stress spiral with conscious, sustained effort, but it’s not the kind of effort you expect.

Source of the Metaphor Offers a Solution

In the early days before flight instruments were common, aviators coined the term “death spiral” to describe what happened when pilots got disoriented by poor visibility and followed their instincts to their deaths. In The Atlantic, Toni Wall Jaudon explains:

“Lost in the clouds, these pilots had fallen prey to a form of sensory disorientation known as a death spiral… an almost instinctive set of maneuvers pilots undertake when they lose sight of the horizon. The graveyard spiral begins when a plane flying in these conditions enters a gentle turn. As it turns, the plane will begin to descend, picking up speed…

In this situation, a pilot who follows the instruments and levels the plane’s wings feels, with absolute certainty, that the craft is turning in the opposite direction.

A pilot who recorrects to what feels level in his or her body simply reinitiates the spiral dive. Likewise, pulling back on the yoke to gain altitude without leveling the wings only tightens the plane’s downward spiral. Without a clear view of the horizon to correct against, the pilot can become so disoriented that a total loss of control results, ending in a crash.”

Pilots who ended a death spiral in a crash followed their instincts and did what felt right.

When writers are in a stress spiral, we absolutely believe we have to work longer, push harder, keep fighting, keep going.  But if we could compare these feelings that originate in the survival-seeking limbic system with facts the way pilots can now rely on life-saving instruments, we’d have a far better chance of surviving.

Avoiding the Crash

© Can Stock Photo / andose24

A plane in a death spiral circles down, turning in progressively tighter, steeper circles. The solution is to stop the in-and-down turn and instead fly straight and level out. The problem is that pilots don’t perceive the turn of the spiral (because, as Jaudon explains, “the human body relies both on the visual and vestibular systems to perceive its orientation in space”). Pilots had to learn to trust instruments that contradicted their kinetic sense.

To get out of the stress spiral, we need to turn in the opposite direction. Metaphorically, if you’re spiraling to the right, turn left.

We have to stop doing what feels right and necessary to the limbic system. We have to stop fighting, fleeing and freezing. Stop the frenzy of activity. If you’ve been driving yourself to keep working, the solution is to not work. If you’re immobilized, do something that is not writing-related.

Resistance Any One?

I know some of you are thinking. “I don’t have time to stop. I have too much that has to get done.” I suspect this thinking will be even stronger when I offer specific steps for escaping the stress spiral. I know this because I’ve been in my own stress spiral. And I coached many writers out of theirs. 

So let me tell you a story. Money was tight when I was in grad school, so when I needed to have a wisdom tooth extracted, I went to the dentistry school to let a student have a learning experience. I had novocaine and nitrous oxide, so I was feeling no pain and no anxiety. The extraction seemed to go on and on with a dull, consistent tugging on my jaw, but I just inhaled deeper. Eventually, I heard a voice say “You really think you’re going to get it out using that angle?” The instructor must have shown the student how to adjust the leverage because shortly after that, the tooth popped out.

It wasn’t that the dental student wasn’t working hard enough, it was that he was coming at it from the wrong angle. Continuing to do what you’ve been doing when you’re in a stress spiral is coming at it from the wrong angle.

Take a Deep Breath

The very first thing to do when you recognize you’re in the Stress Spiral is to take slow, deep breaths. When your limbic system is engaged, it tends to stay in control; the only way to bring your cortex back online is to physically relax.

The easiest, most effect way to relax your body is to focus on your breath.

Most of us breathe with only the top third of our lungs. 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.

Resist Your Survival Instincts

You’ll need a bit of your cortex to take the remaining steps out of the stress spiral. If you find yourself dismissing these steps with thoughts like “I don’t have time for this” or “That’s never going to work,” you’re falling back into the stress spiral. Remember the dental student and return your attention to your breathing.

If you’ve been in the stress spiral for weeks or months, you’ll probably need to return to your breath many times as you can take the next steps. That’s okay. Just keep breathing.

Get Out to Level Out

Leave your writing space. This will feel as foreign and discomforting as a pilot learning to trust the instruments to make a turn his kinetic sense is (incorrectly) telling him is wrong. Do it anyway.

Yes, I typically suggest writers set a small time commitment (10 or 15 minutes) and stay in the writing space for that time. Even if you’re just staring at the wall, if you’re in your writing space and not doing anything else, it counts as Product Time. That is my usual recommendation. Avoiding the crash from a Stress Spiral is not a typical situation.

Get out now.

Leave your writing tools and your constant thoughts about what you should be writing behind. Remember to return to your breathing every time your limbic system revs up thoughts about how you should get back to work and get busy.

Don’t Go for Your Default

If you have a go-to procrastination routine like playing Sudoku or losing hours binge-watching or on social media, refrain from doing that.

The default distraction is a coping mechanism that soothes you. But that only works until you realize how much time you wasted and fling yourself back into the stress spiral.

Make it easier on yourself in the long run by resisting what allows you to temporarily tune out how crappy you feel. Have the courage to feel what you feel in the moment.

Believe me, I know how difficult that is. Do it anyway.

Go Outside and Wait for It

Take yourself outside. Reconnect with nature. It will calm your mind and restore your soul.

If your stress spiral had you hunched over your keyboard for hours on end, take a meandering walk. If your stress had you rushing around, just sit and listen.

When you’ve removed yourself from the immediate danger of a stress crash, your cortex can do the creative thinking and problem-solving it does best.

Insight will come as you relax and let your mind wander. Waiting for insight prepares you for the next steps.

Flying Without Spiraling

Two of the first things to fall away when a writer spins into a stress spiral are Process and Self-care. I say this with confidence not only because this is what happens to me, but because maintaining Process and Self-care would have done a lot to prevent the stress spiral.

Just like pilots who are certain that level flying is a turn in the wrong direction, writers heading into a stress spiral are absolutely certain that there is no time for frivolous things like play and self-care.

They promise themselves that they can make up for lost sleep, lack of exercise, crappy food and social isolation when the crisis is over, when in fact getting the sleep, exercise, nutrition and meaningful human contact they need mitigates the crisis.

You know what you need to do to take care of yourself – make that a priority and do it.

I know play sounds like a complete waste of time. I know that when you collapse at the end of a day of spiraling, you have no energy or mental capacity to even know what would be pleasantly playful. The tendency is to settle for something that numbs your mind: TV, social media, a glass of wine. But numbing your mind does nothing to restore your physical, mental and emotional energy or prepare you to avoid the spiral tomorrow.

So put Process play first. Schedule and keep creative play dates with yourself early in the day before you attempt to work. You can include others if you like; children can be fabulous play mentors for stressed adults.

Play will restore your soul, rebalance your brain, lighten your mood, improve your sleep and give you unexpected insights.

Start the Flight Right

After you’ve started the day with self-care and play, you’re ready to return to your writing space.

Identify what you intend to focus your attention on and for how long. Then cut that time in half to make it a realistic commitment. Early in your recovery from a stress spiral keep your commitments minuscule.

The temptation is to rush back to long hours, especially if you’re still facing a deadline or other crisis. You might get one day of stress-driven “progress” but chances are you’ll pay for it by crashing for the next few days and significantly extending the recovery time before you can return to your normal work routine.

Force yourself to take breaks.

Learn to say “no” to anything that is not YOUR priority. Learn to over-estimate how long it will take to do a task and under-commit your time.

When you can write without spiraling out of control for a month, you’ll have the data you need and the cortex capacity to evaluate that data (without undue limbic system interference). You’ll learn to make reasonable commitments that challenge you without triggering a stress spiral.

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8 Comments on “Pulling Out of the Writer’s Stress Spiral of Death”

  1. Mary June 18, 2018 at 10:59 pm #

    Rosanne, thank you for an incisive and patient showing of how to break out of chronic stress and ever-spiraling procrastination. This is a roadmap.


    • rosannebane June 21, 2018 at 2:06 pm #

      Hi Mary, you’re most welcome. We live in stressful times; it’s easy to get overwhelmed. It’s good to know my blog/roadmap can help other writers. It sure helps me to keep writing it. If you gain insights on your journey out of stress that other writers might benefit from, consider writing a guest post.


      • Mary July 3, 2018 at 10:48 pm #

        Rosanne, thank you for an incisive and patient showing of how to break out of chronic stress and ever-spiraling procrastination. This is a roadmap.

        Roseanne, I’d love to write a guest post. I’ll be in touch.


        • rosannebane August 9, 2018 at 9:55 am #

          Hi Mary, I’m eager to see a guest post from you.


  2. Melissa Bennett June 18, 2018 at 6:11 pm #

    Rosanne, I’m going to have to re-read this often. I’ve been in this pattern for WAY too long. Thank you for such insightful information. I have hope that in time, the tips you provided will help me move into a more realistic and truly productive place.


    • rosannebane June 21, 2018 at 2:08 pm #

      Hi Melissa, A lot of people in all occupations struggle with this pattern. I have faith in your ability to move into healthier, happier patterns that move your writing forward. As I said to Mary, consider writing a guest post about the insights you gain on your journey out of the stress spiral.


  3. Joel D Canfield June 10, 2018 at 5:00 pm #

    Exceptionally insightful and practical. You do important work, Rosanne. Thank you.


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