Writing in the Time of Pandemic: What’s Kindness Got to Do with It?
A friend asked, “How are you?”
It wasn’t a perfunctory greeting; it was a genuine question. I hesitated. I didn’t really know how I was.
I didn’t know if I wanted to know.
So I said, “I’m fine.”
I am nowhere near fine, except in the sense of the R.E.M. lyric:
It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.
The global pandemic will change the world, hopefully for the better, but potentially for the worse. We are all being changed and challenged. We’re all scared, sometimes terrified, sometimes angry and frustrated, sometimes despairing and despondent. We don’t know what to do with so many emotions and we haven’t had time to work through it all.
What I’ve done so far is roll all that emotion up, stuffed it into “fine” and tried to pretend it’s not there. The problem with ignoring a big ball of “Fine stuffed with uncomfortable emotions” is that leaves us in a nearly constant state of low to medium anxiety.
This anxiety makes it impossible to enjoy all that we could enjoy. Yes, we’re scared and angry, but we’re also grateful, delighted, amused, enthralled. I suspect we’d find more to be grateful for, amused by and enthralled with if we weren’t rolling in a fog of anxiety.
And of course, it’s pretty much impossible to write from a fog of anxiety, which is particularly grievous for those of us who write for a living and/or find comfort and insight in writing.
Into the Fog
We’re stressed like never before. Even when we think we’re coping (aka “Fine”), the unrelenting uncertainty of this pandemic keeps us stuck in a stress response.
The cortex is our logical, rational, creative brain. It is the source of executive functions like evaluating data, anticipating and planning for the future, exploring creative possibilities, consciously observing and motivating ourselves and others, and making strategic decisions.
The limbic system processes sensory experiences and gives emotional significance to the sensory information it sends to the cortex. It’s faster and more focused on survival instincts than the cortex and the primary driver of the instinctual freeze-fight-or-flight stress response. Because the stress response triggers a series of physiological changes — maximizes our physical strength and endurance, makes our responses faster and our vision sharper (read more) — it is exactly what we need in emergencies.
But the pandemic is not an emergency.
Emergency: a sudden, serious and dangerous event or situation that needs immediate action – OALD
The pandemic is and will continue to be an ongoing, unfolding, changing dangerous situation that requires some immediate action, but will primarily require sound, rational thinking. We need to develop a series of complex, strategic responses and be prepared to modify, improve or replace those responses as the data changes.
That is a job for the cortex, not the limbic brain.
Out of the Fog
According to Joseph LeDoux, once the stress response is triggered, it tends to create “self-perpetuating, vicious cycles of emotional reactivity.” (quoted in Around the Writer’s Block, p 224). The more frequent and long-lasting the stress is, the more reactive we become.
It is, therefore, imperative we learn how to pull ourselves out of the fog and practice those techniques daily.
The simplest technique is pay attention to your breathing. Take a slow, deep breath. Hold it for a few seconds, then feel your body relax as you slowly exhale. Repeat for at least ten breaths.
Avoid freaking yourself out. This includes limiting your daily consumption of news. Realistically anticipating the future so you can take reasonable, rational action is what your cortex does. Exaggerating an oncoming apocalypse is what your limbic system does – unless you’re plotting the apocalypse for a novel or screenplay, in which case it’s a creative use of your cortex.
The Kindness Cure for Anxiety
I often encourage writers – in conversations, in my coaching, classes and in my responses to comments here — to be compassionate, gentle and patient with themselves. And I’ve been blessed to have fellow writers and friends remind me to do the same.
I’ve always thought that beating ourselves up is a waste of time we could use to create. Critique of writing can be useful when done well, but harsh criticism of the writer her/him/their self is worse than pointless. It’s the route to writer’s block.
My instincts were more on target than I knew.
As reported by Juli Fraga, a study of 60 British women with eating disorders found that using a self-compassion exercise instead of a self-critical strategy was more effective in reducing the desire to overeat.
The study’s lead author Lucy Serpell, associate professor of clinical psychology at the University College London, reports “It was surprising and promising to find that a brief self-compassion exercise can impact people’s emotions, as well as the amount they ate…When individuals show themselves warmth and compassion, the soothing part of the brain is activated.” (read more)
Apparently, being gentle and kind to ourselves reverses the stress response, at least for women.
There is a lot more research I’m eager to explore on this topic and rather than delay posting this to push myself to do more and better research, I’m going to share the links I have and encourage you to join me in the search.
Let me know what you discover in your reading, your writing and your life.
Cleveland Clinic, “What Happens to Your Body During the Fight or Flight Response?” from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/what-happens-to-your-body-during-the-fight-or-flight-response/ April 23, 2020.
Rosanne Bane, Around the Writer’s Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer’s Resistance, 2012, Tarcher/Penguin/Random House, quoting Joseph LeDoux, The Emotional Brain, 1996, Touchstone.
Jill Fraga, “Studies show self-compassion can help curb disorderd eating,” The Washington Post, April 11, 2020, https://tylerpaper.com/studies-show-self-compassion-can-help-curb-disordered-eating/article_d6fed682-7c31-11ea-ab5e-cb3758bd0da5.html
Links for the “Soothing Part of the Brain