Feeling Blocked? 5 Ways to Fire Up Your Writing Brain during a Pandemic

Whether suffering from pandemic lockdown or Coronavirus brain (a thing!), feeling blocked adds to a writer’s already high stress levels. To combat difficulty focusing enough to write, you need to tamp down fear, which means calming and reassuring your writing brain.

We all have three basic parts to our brains:

  • Reptilian – The primitive brain sits at the top of your spinal cord, silently (usually subconsciously) focusing on your survival needs—food, oxygen, heart rate, blood pressure, and reproduction. It’s your “on-duty security guard” ever ready to jumpstart “fight-or-flight” responses, reflexive actions, or other instinctual reactions.
  • Limbic – Just atop your reptilian brain (and deeper within your brain), the limbic brain is focused on your emotional life and the formation of memories. While you dream, it is strengthening or abandoning synapses, turning short-term memories into long-term memories, or cleaning out information you don’t need to retain.
  • Neocortex – This is that wrinkled, gelatinous cap we are all so used to seeing. The most highly developed, “newest” part of your brain is in charge of high-level thinking, including some aspects of creativity. It consists of four lobes, each divided in a right and left side—Frontal/CEO; Prefrontal/Integrator, Regulator, and Reflector; Temporal/Hearing and Memory; Parietal/Navigator; and Occipital/Sight. The Cerebellum aka “little brain”—where 50 percent of your neurons live—handles motor control, focus, emotional reactions, and fine-tuning.

Your reptilian brain is constantly scanning your perimeter for danger, which it communicates to the limbic brain, and then your cortex. It does this by generating the flight or fight hormones that signal to your body that you are in immediate danger and need to react. Even when you are watching TV or listening to music, your reptile is always scanning. It likely why Feng Shui advises not working with your back to a door.

Unfortunately, with a pandemic, the danger is invisible. Nevertheless, your reptilian brain is in overdrive, as are your flight or fight hormones, which make it a challenge for your cortex to function at its peak capacity.

What you need to do is calm the reptilian and limbic portions of your brain. Some suggestions to try in a quiet room:

  1. Calm your mind. Utilize your rational neocortex to list of all the steps you are taking to keep you and your family safe. Write down what you know is true: that you are choosing concrete steps to protect yourself, that the vast majority of people survive, that, at least for the present, you are truly safe in your current Do this just before sitting down to write. Make it a writing mantra.
  2. Bolster your focus. We all know now that meditation reduces stress and benefits your brain functioning (more on that in the next blog). I suggest an unguided meditation, that allows your mind to ramble until it calms itself and focuses on its own—no pressure to perform or match your stride to anyone else’s. You can find lots of unguided meditations online. Or simply sit still in a quiet environment until thoughts stop careening in your skull and your brain quiets. Give it a solid five minutes to rest.
  3. Respond to music. Music alternately calms or fires up your limbic brain, in a productive way. If you need to calm yourself, choose calming music and keep the volume low, but when you feel ready to write, pump up the volume with songs that fire up your spirit and dance! Get your writing brain fired up.
  4. Do what you can. Accept that writing is what you do. Unless you are a frontline worker, it likely feels frivolous to do anything. But writing is what you do, so do what you can and feel good about it. If words will not come, try plotting what you will write next and think of that as your contribution to everyone’s health and sanity, especially your own. Writing matters, all steps involved in writing matter.
  5. Tamp down fear. If you still find it nearly impossible to focus on your current writing project, write instead about your fears. Forget structure or even clarity, let your frightened innerchild write it all out. Vomit all that anxiety onto the page and keep regurgitating until you feel spent. Let the reptilian brain go wild. No fear is too small or insignificant. Then either rest or go back to Number 1.

If steps 1-5 have not restored your ability to focus enough to write, take two aspirin and call me in the morning.

Just kidding.

Instead, be gentle with yourself. This is not a time to add pressure or guilt or more anxiety. Sometimes writers let things brew and your ability to focus and be productive will return. Meanwhile, read great novels, seek out fascinating and educational nonfiction, expand your reading list to writers you have yet to explore. All writers need to read outside his or her genre. Find a multitude of ways to expand who you are as a human being and all of this will infuse your writing when the time comes—and it will.

Remember that your reptilian brain is doing its proper job of scanning for danger. Limit CNN and other cable news’ channels, step away from politics, go out and enjoy nature, cook something fabulous for your loved ones, dance, sing, play with your kids or grandkids, do crossword puzzles, decoupage something, paint your garage, rearrange your office, create in other ways.

Each of these positive and creative actions will calm your brain and help it realize that the coronavirus will not last forever, and, most importantly, is not currently seeping into your lungs and that you are not in immediate danger. Get plenty of rest and eat well to reinforce your limbic brain. Make maximum use of your neocortex (thinking brain) to reassure your entire being that you are an intelligent being, doing the best you can to keep yourself and your loved ones safe. Do this often, but particularly before you sit down at your writing desk.

If you still feel blocked, remember that writing is more than physically getting words on a page. Sometimes writers upload information via vast and intensive reading, dream up new ideas, or simply germinate—all which bolster writing when the time comes.

Happy writing, or germinating!

2 thoughts on “Feeling Blocked? 5 Ways to Fire Up Your Writing Brain during a Pandemic

  1. Susan, just wanted to say hello and hope all is going well. From one of your Woodstock Revisited contributors.
    Bob Brown


    • Hi Bob, Always lovely to hear from you. Things are as good as they can be during a pandemic. Been hibernating at home for ten weeks. Writing blogs to help other writers who are also feeling blocked. Maybe best positive outcome for me personally. How’s things in Canada? At least you have a compassionate leader and generous help. Hope you and yours are well.


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