How not to freak out your writing brain’s fear centre: lessons from neuroscience part 2

Have you ever start a challenging writing routine or a new fitness regime only for it to fail a few days later? If so, don’t blame yourself – blame your brain! When you take on something that’s too ambitious or too complicated, you can trigger your brain’s fear centre – and this leads to overwhelm. But you can control your brain using two simple methods, both harnessing the power of neuroscience…

The amygdala is one of the most primitive areas of your mammal brain. It gets activated when something threatening or unusual approaches and it’s why you feel fear and stress.

Neuroscientists tell us that it’s the job of the amygdala to observe and warn you if there’s any danger’s close.

So in one way, your amygdala’s like your best mate. It always has your back.

It keeps you safe and is constantly on the look-out for situations that might cause you harm.

But in lots of other ways, your amygdala’s your worst enemy.

It’s like that ‘so-called-friend’ who drags you down, who holds you back and stops you from reaching your potential.

Related reads: Why time-blocking works for writers, investigating the science >>

You need your brain’s fear centre to keep you safe. But all too often, this part of the brain wants to keep you too safe.

It craves certainty and familiarity. It prevents you from taking risks, doing anything new and keeps you from changing.

It creates anxiety, fear and stress when you try to break new ground.

Plastic fantastic

Your brain is built from neural pathways and networks. Some of these networks are strong and others are weak – but none are ever set in stone.

These neural networks grow, develop and change as we live our lives – it’s what neuroscientists call neuroplasticity.

If you’re in the habit of say, always snacking on unhealthy foods on your 11am break, there’s a strong connection in your brain between ‘11am break’ and ‘unhealthy snacking’.

“Your amygdala’s your worst enemy. It’s like that so-called-friend who drags you down, holds you back stops you from reaching your potential.”

If you want to rid yourself of that habit, you need to weaken that network and strengthen another, more healthy one.

Altering these networks and changing our behaviour isn’t easy, but it’s possible because our brains can be moulded – if we know how these connections are made.

Scary, hairy = wary

Neuroscience research tells us that wanting to write – or write more – is just like wanting to introduce any new behaviour into our lives.

When you want to write, you’re changing the make-up of your brain in some small way – and your amygdala hates you doing that because it likes you just as you are.

It doesn’t like change because it’s trying to protect you – and that’s when your fear centre kicks in.

We’ve written before that some of the worst writing advice out there goes along the lines of ‘just get the thing written’.

Now, if you can ‘just do it’ then great – but most people can’t. Me included.

If you take on a writing goal or embark on a writing routine that’s too big, scary or hairy, you risk triggering those alarm bells in the amygdala and in your brain’s fear centre – and that’s when fear, stress and overwhelm take hold.

And once triggered, your amygdala takes a long time to soothe.

Shhh… don’t make a sound!

There are two, sure-fire ways to sneak by your amygdala without setting off those alarm bells and that’s to start any new writing goal or routine in a small way and keep it super-simple.

When you start super-small – not thinking about the writing project as a whole but just the next thing you can do – neuroscientists tell us that you can tip-toe past your mammal brain.

When steps are super-small and change is incremental then the amygdala doesn’t notice when you start cranking up the time you spend on your writing or how many words your write.

>> Actionable tip

If you don’t know where to start with your project or you’re feeling overwhelmed – start small.

Don’t feel embarrassed about the first step being so small that you cannot fail.

The key is to start and keep it tiny. Thinking in incremental steps makes the large writing project that you want to complete more achievable.

So, think about your writing goal, what’s the first small action you can take to move your project forwards?

Make this your next writing session.

Think bright

So, we’ve established that your mammal brain doesn’t like surprises – but it also hates complexity too.

It gets scared and confused if there’s too much to think about – that can trigger stress and overwhelm.

Neuroscientists and psychologists tell us that that writing routines that are simple, clear and unambiguous work better for us because they take the effort out of meeting them.

Related reads: Writing strategies: finding yours, why it matters >>

Your mammal brain is always on the look-out for things that might cause you stress, discomfort or effort – it wants to protect you at all costs.

So, when it comes to setting your goal and carving out time in your day to write – don’t make it effortful.

Keeping it simple and specific doesn’t stress out your fear centres and helps you adopt a new routine without setting off any alarm bells.

This is where setting bright lines will really help.

>> Actionable tip

If your goal is that you’ll write on a Monday and on a Thursday after work or that you’ll always write on Tuesday morning, it becomes crystal clear when you’ve missed that goal – or hit it.

Psychologists have dubbed these ‘bright lines’ and they’re effective because they’re unambiguous.

You know instantly when you’ve stepped over a bight line which reduces the amount of mental effort required to put the rule into practice.

“Writing routines that are simple, clear and unambiguous work better for us because they take the effort out of meeting them.”

Bright lines work because they make adopting new routines less effortful and stressful which in turn means they don’t signal the sirens in your fear centre.

Remember: your amygdala’s only job is to protect you and stop you from changing.

Having bright lines doesn’t mean that you can’t miss a day of writing – you have a life and it will get in the way – they’re more about giving you clarity so you can monitor your practice over time.

So, grab your diary. What bright line could you set for your writing this week?

Whatever rules you set for your writing, make them bright ones – clear, simple and specific.

In summary

Neuroscientists teach us that two of the most important aspect of our brain’s structure are its reward centres and its fear centres.

Our reward centres help us to maximise contact with things that are good for us whilst our fear centres minimize contact with things that are bad for us.

Knowing about both can help us understand how we develop habits and routines, why we become overwhelmed and how we can start using both to feel better about writing and adopt positive behaviours into our lives.

Read next: How to harness your writing brain’s hedonic hotspots: lessons from neuroscience part 1>>

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Big thanks to Dr Gabija Toleikyte, neuroscientist and business coach at University College London for her expertise and early inspiration for this post.

Further reading:

The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg

Think Small, Owain Service & Rory Gallagher

Hooked, Nir Eyal

Mindset, Dr Carol S. Dweck

Super Better, Dr Jane McGonigal

One Small Step Can Change your Life, Dr Robert Maurer

About the author: Co-founder and writer in residence at Prolifiko | failed academic and ex-philosophy lecturer | maker of unpopular short comedy films.