Fight, flight or write.

Autonomic Nervous System Response

There’s no doubt that I often do my most productive writing when I’m really cheesed off about something. I’ve discovered that anger fuels my creativity; I type at twice my usual speed, words gushing in fully composed sentences from my determined mind. It doesn’t really matter the source of the pissed-offedness either. It just matters that it becomes the energy I need to get the words on paper. My writing, even if only for a few moments, becomes adrenaline fuelled.

So what exactly is going on when this happens? To put it simply, when the brain has perceived a threat, or stress, we have what we call an amygdala hijack. When this happens, the amygdala (the reptilian part of our brain which processes our emotions amongst other things) kicks in and everything else, including rational thought and reasoning, kicks out. At this point our sympathetic nervous system is activated, resulting in the ‘rest and take it easy’ parasympathetic nervous system being deactivated. Before we know it’s even happening, our fight, flight, freeze or flock responses take over, enabling us to engage in a short burst of strenuous physical exercise (punching or running), unless of course we go into freeze mode or rush to the nearest coffee shop for safety in like-minded numbers. It is of course more complex, and there are a zillion degrees of stress, but the point I make is that when we find ourselves in the grip of an emotional hijack, we have an opportunity to channel anger and the resulting physical and neurological processes we go through into our writing to good effect.

So if rational thought and reasoning go out the window then how can there possibly be any constructive writing ? The truth is, a stress response which triggers adrenaline can let you write unabandoned and without hesitation, words flowing unchecked; something you can’t always do too easily if you’re in calm, rational, analysis to paralysis mode. Writing in an abandoned, unhesitating manner can bring a whole new freedom to your work. I’m not advocating writing an e-mail or a letter you quickly post whilst in such a state of writing freedom – that would be reckless, if a little satisfying. I am however suggesting it might be a good time to sit down and work on that book, or that blog post: something you can later go back and edit. You might be surprised to see what you can produce under stress, when your emotions are running high, giving you a whole new kind of motivation. It’s particularly interesting if you manage to write a tricky scene, one which doesn’t come naturally under calmer conditions. You might find a voice you didn’t know was there, one which perfectly fits that character you haven’t been able to nail.

I’ve used stress to fuel my writing on several occasions and I’ve always been surprised by how much I can achieve and how quickly I can achieve it when I’m in the angry zone. I find myself putting everything about my usual way of thinking and writing to the side and trying something completely different.

Where possible I try to use the less pleasant emotions to achieve something more positive. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes I freeze on the sofa with a large mug of coffee and a slab of dark chocolate stressing about how I should be writing while I’m stressed. More often though, writing when stressed works for me and when I go back to read it after I’m calm, I realise I have a little nugget of gold to work with which makes it all worth while. 

Which reminds me – I must go and thank my other half. If he hadn’t swiped that last square of chocolate just once too often now, I’d never have finished this post…


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