Got stress or overwhelm and want to write about it? Here’s what you need to know.

Last night, I dreamt of snakes. Small ones slithering around the carpet in an old house. A pit viper coiled under the kitchen sink. Their presence was more troubling than terrifying. There were just too many of them. I didn’t know where to step, or how we’d get to the cleaning supplies without being bit, or how I’d keep the snakes away from my cats.

When I spend too much time watching the news or scrolling through social media, similar feelings wash over me. Sometimes the bombardment of messages triggers my inner  “get your ass in gear” in a way that’s overwhelming.

Last month, I started a series on Brené Brown’s new book, Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience. Brené’s premise is that you can’t feel what you don’t have language for. I would argue you can’t write about those emotions either.

So, let’s spend some time broadening our emotional repertoires.

In Atlas of the Heart, Brené uses her restaurant experience to talk about stress and overwhelm, which she refers to as the difference between being “in the weeds” and “being blown.”

Being in the weeds is a state of stress where “we evaluate environmental demand as beyond our ability to successfully cope.” While she says, “all stress impacts us physiologically, how we perceive and process it, depends on whether we believe we can cope with the situation.” In other words, our “emotions respond to our thinking rather than our body freaking out.”

Overwhelm, or “feeling blown,” is a state of extreme stress where we’re unable to function. It’s the paralysis that comes with finding a pit viper under your kitchen sink. When we’re flooded or overwhelmed with emotions, a gate in our brains shuts off our prefrontal cortex, and with it, our rational thoughts. Brené describes the feeling this way: “On a scale of 1 to 10, I’m feeling my emotions at about a 10, I’m paying attention to them at about a 5, and I understand them at about a 2.”

So when we’re stressed, we might be in our heads, but overwhelm happens in the body and in our actions. 

If you’re wondering how to reveal stress and overwhelm in your characters, Donald Maass, author of The Emotional Craft of Fiction, has some great advice, which you can read about here.

But for now, let’s keep the focus on you.

When you face overwhelm, Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests, “mindful play or no-agenda non-doing time to cope with the situation.” In Brene’s restaurant, if an employee said they were blown, they “weren’t asked to problem-solve the situation,” they were sent outside to rest.

The world we live in with its constant barrage of good and bad information, can lead to chronic states of stress and overwhelm that can harm us and clutter the stories we’re trying to tell.

It’s why I and many other writing instructors recommend limiting time on social media and using mindfulness as a pre-writing exercise. Calming the nervous system and clearing the mind lowers your stress, improves your wellbeing, and allows your inner muse speak, which can make your writing sessions more powerful and efficient.

It’s likely you and everyone around you will know when you’re overwhelmed. But what if “being in the weeds” is your normal state?

Stress used to be my favorite snack food. I loved the adrenaline rushes it produced, the tension in my muscles, the wired sensation in my brain. Hell, if I’m completely honest, I still love it. But blowing out my adrenals by working while trying to recover from Lyme taught me that no matter how much I love stress, it won’t love me back.

So, like it or not, I must put on my big girl pants and moderate it.

Here’s what that looks like in my world:

  • Aiming for seven hours or more of sleep every night
  • Daily meditations
  • Regular journaling
  • Daily gratitude practice
  • Working with a therapist who keeps me honest
  • Frequent check-ins with myself
  • Eating a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet

When I face overwhelm, I pause, breathe in deeply, and label the emotion. Then I complete the following exercise:

  • Look left and name three objects I see
  • Look straight ahead and name three sensations in my body
  • Look right and name three more objects

Then I stop and do nothing for the next five minutes, which, as a triple fire sign, sometimes feels like ten hours.

Long ago, I learned the key to a sustainable writing life (or really any life) is pacing myself. Sometimes that means going slower than I’d like, and at other times, it means doing nothing at all. But all that non-doing, has kept me writing. It’s also why I can feel curious about my snake dream rather than overwhelmed by it.

What do you do when you’re stressed or overwhelmed? How do you declutter your brain before a writing session? 

Until next week, may you experience the peace needed to keep writing on. 

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