Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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February 9, 2022

7 Steps to Healthy Emotional Endurance for Writers

By Miffie Seideman

Writers need a lot of persistence. “Work-life” balance? As a writer I’ve never managed it. Oh, I try. It just never seems to happen. There’s always something else to do: chores, work, cook, write, edit, chores, edit…maybe some sleep. Without persistence (and a hefty dose of caffeine), I’d fall behind on everything in life!

Writers also need a lot of endurance—specifically, emotional endurance. Dr. Spencer from Triathlete Magazine defines emotional endurance as “how clear someone’s mind is and how much space they have for physiologic stressors.” In other words, mental and emotional stressors can impact how much you can physically do.

Hitting the Wall

In endurance sports, when your emotional tank is empty, whatever internal drive you have left to cross the finish line can suddenly run dry. What happens next? Athletes slow to a stop. In triathlon, we call this “hitting the wall.”

Even a professional athlete with an empty emotional tank can find the day ending early, as we saw with Simone Biles' unexpected early departure from the Tokyo Olympics. Clearly, she was physically ready to compete. Emotionally, her tank was running on empty.  

Many endurance athletes take their tank to near empty before their races, a culmination of hours away from family, squeezing in ridiculous amounts of training around work and life, life events themselves, and fighting periodic setbacks from injury.

Stepping up to that starting line, whatever emotional reserve is left can make or break the day. I saw this firsthand at a recent Ironman triathlon. After the 2.4-mile swim, eager athletes headed out on the 112-mile bike course. But hours of exhaustive headwinds left many athletes on the side of the road crying, leaning over their bikes in defeat, unable to finish the race.

Hitting the Writing Wall

Personally, I think this quote sums up endurance training best:

“You’re training to get to that point of depletion and breaking, then finding a way to operate in that space for as long as you possibly can until you either pass out or get across the finish line.”

(Dr. Spencer, Triathlete Magazine)

Notice I didn’t say it sums up endurance sport training the best. This quote also sums up the endurance lifestyle of working parents, full-time entrepreneurs, and yes…writers.

We often fit writing around already full lives, pushing to finish that screenplay or manuscript, despite the multitude of commitments that can’t wait. This can leave us emotionally fatigued, just when we need to push through those final edits, hit submit on that query, or handle critiques on our precious work.

We can hit the proverbial wall, with writer’s block, ambivalence toward our story, self-doubt, depression.

(Re)Filling Your Emotional Fuel Tank

The best time to deal with your emotional endurance is before you get close to hitting that wall. But if you’re reading this today and had an “ah ha!” moment that your own tank is already running dangerously low, it’s not too late to dig in and start refilling the tank.

With a few assessments and targeted behavioral changes, you can be on your way to not only a bigger emotional reserve, but a more fulfilling lifestyle. Keep in mind, change takes practice, so allow yourself some time to improve and don’t expect perfection.

7 Steps to (Re)fueling  

1. Be Honest

The best way to gauge your emotional endurance reserve is to check your current fuel tank level. Only you know how many competing obligations you have or how little sleep you’re getting. And don’t forget the emotional impact of losses, whether a loved one, a job, or another query rejection.

To do: Determine your emotional reserve tank level. This is not an exact science, but will get you started.

  • Full tank: You wake rested, raring to go, excited to dig into projects, and laughing off the little unexpected setbacks.
  • Half-full tank: You wake a bit tired, but fair well during the day. You have begun to notice a little fraying at the emotional edges, when handling stressful situations.
  • Needle on or near empty: You oversleep your alarm, feel overwhelmed by your lists and deadlines, snap or tear up easily.

  Where does your fuel gauge sit?

2. Depressurize

Take a load off your emotions by making choices to de-stress your lifestyle. Actively take control of your obligations, instead of just making your way through the never-ending list.

  • Prioritize- Quit feeling like you absolutely must do everything. Learn to make lists of obligations and find a system to identify those that absolutely must be done today, tomorrow, etc. Be prepared to move some items to the “sometime later” or the “trash” bin. Be honest here.

To do:

Need help prioritizing? There are many resources on effective time management. To get you started, check out this quick read from Psychology Today or this course on the famous Dale Carnegie Method.  

Assembly line-Look for repetitive tasks that can be grouped or pre-done for time efficiency.

  • For example, if you cook a dinner every day, buy that time back by making Sunday evening your cook-ahead day.
  • Make several dinners ahead and reheat them in the evenings.
  • Let Tupperware be your friend! Meal prepping doesn’t have to be time consuming or hard.
  • I turn on the music and start cooking.
  • I find slow cookers, pressure cookers, and 3-4 ingredient meals to be the most time friendly.
  • Check out some tips here.

3. Just Say No

You just can’t do it all. Keep from overfilling your commitments so the ones you do are still enjoyable.

To do: Either learn to say no to some tasks or learn to ask for help. Reaching out to let someone else help can be a huge stress reducer. For help, try this quick read.

4. Learn Coping Skills

Yes, this can take a little time, but the rewards you reap will help refill that tank. Think you don’t have time for this one? Go back to Depressurize or Just Say No (above) to carve out time in your life for you.

To do:

Find something that helps you defuse or relax. You may need to try a couple of different things until you find what works.

  • For example, commit to taking one yoga class a week or learn meditation for 10 minutes a day.
  • It's also important to gain the tools to cope when under duress. To do this, consider listening to a podcast or read a book about stress reduction and coping skills.

5. Develop Support Networks

Getting to know other writers can help you refill that tank. When you’re struggling, dealing with life challenges, or just needing some direction on next steps, writing groups can be there for you.

Years ago at a Writer’s Digest Conference, I got connected with several writers from across the US. We still meet weekly online. We each bring different experiences to share about getting through this thing we call writing. And some days, we just chat about life—having teens, places we’ve visited, instruments we play.

We learn we aren’t alone in a writing silo of stress, and we have people to reach out to when life gets tough. 

To do: Find a social networking group (online or in person).

  • Groups like Facebook and Meet Up can be great for finding local groups that have similar interests.
  • Contact your local library—many have writer’s groups lead by the librarian.

6. Change Your Inner Dialogue

Self-talk is a powerful tool—it can build you up or weigh you down. The Power of Positive thought can’t be understated: if you think good thoughts, you're more likely to have positive feelings and handle difficult moments with a bit more grace.

Walking around with negative thoughts can have the opposite effect. Negative self-talk is also a habit that grows unless it's tamed. It can be the lens through which you begin to see the world.

To do: Spend a day listening to your inner thoughts (or what you say out loud to other drivers!).

  • Do you use negative, derogatory, or angry words (that was stupid, I’ll never get this manuscript done, my writing really stinks)?
  • Or do you use more positive words (you know, those edits were hard, but I got them done)?

No, you don’t have to pretend to be fake-happy. But learning to restructure negative thoughts into positive views can keep the stresses from further weighing you down. For more information, see here.

Final To Do: Re-Check the Tank

Like a follow-up visit to the doctor, take the time to periodically reassess your emotional endurance tank.

  • Decide if you want to give yourself two weeks or a month before checking back.
  • Set a reminder.
  • When the day comes, look at your tank. Has the needle on the tank moved? More importantly, has it moved in the right direction?
  • Assess what you’ve improved and what still needs work.
  • Decide what has helped and what hasn't.
  • Use that information to revise your approach, then dive back in for another few weeks.

Final Thought

If you haven’t made a lot of progress, don’t get frustrated. Behavioral change takes time. So, be patient while you work on your emotional reserve. After all, it probably didn’t get empty overnight! And be prepared to periodically need a refill, even after you’ve filled the tank, because life happens.

Have you worked on your emotional endurance? What coping mechanisms have you found that help? We’d love for you to share your ideas in the comments.

* * * * * *

About Miffie

Miffie Seideman has been a pharmacist for over 30 years, with a passion for helping others. Her research articles have appeared in several professional pharmacy journals. When not training for a race, her writing projects include a (soon to be announced) writer’s handbook and a fantasy adventure that started as “What if Romeo and Juliet didn’t live happily ever after?” An avid triathlete, she spends countless hours training in the arid deserts of Arizona, devising new plots. Miffie can be found hanging around her website https://miffieseideman.com/ examining the intersection of triathlon and writing and on Twitter @MiffieSeideman…you know…tweeting.

Top Image by kinkate from Pixabay

18 comments on “7 Steps to Healthy Emotional Endurance for Writers”

  1. Excellent blog, Miffie! I love the full/empty tank analogy - I've experienced all those stages at different times in my life. Luckily I'm in a good place now, but that analogy alone is a great take-away for when to cut back and be gentle with ourselves.

    1. Thanks, Becky! I'm glad you found that helpful. I'd love it if our tanks would beep at us or have a little red light come on when they are getting low. Have a great day!

  2. This is all great advice. Thank you. I walk, bike in the summer, and practice yoga each day. I try to meditate as much as possible. One of the biggest, conscious changes I've made has been to be aware of my self-talk, which I discovered was awful. I berated myself continually. It took some time to become more self-aware, to catch myself when I wasn't being kind, but I've gotten much better. Now, even when I catch myself falling short, I'm kind when I correct. The pressure we can put on ourselves can eclipse what anyone else might do or has done.

    1. Hi Christina. That is so true, isn't it? We are our so tough on ourselves. I am so glad you have been making progress to control that inner critic. Also, partial to your cycling. That's where I find my greatest relaxation.

  3. Great points, especially number 5. I can tell you that if it wasn't for the weekly support calls there are times I might have given up. Having a good community that understands were you're coming from is worth more than gold! It's even more effective when that community becomes people you can truly call friends.

    1. Yes, Eldred! Support groups are so important. I think it's so hard for people to commit to the time upfront, but once they see the impact, they wouldn't want to go back to being on the journey alone.

  4. What a great post. I knew I had some life-stuff adding stress, and I thought I'd reduced my to-do list sufficiently. But recognizing that my tank is nearly empty had me re-prioritizing again. So thank you. I foresee using a lot of the tips in this article for a very long time.

    1. Thanks, Lynette! Honestly, a recent set back in my goals had me researching why. That was when I realized how empty my own emotional endurance tank was. Like on-the-side-of-the-road-needing-a-gas-can empty. Amazing what we can plough through and not realize! I'm glad you are on the road to refueling.

  5. Great article. Since the start of the year, I've committed to meditation every day. At least 5 mins but sometimes longer. I allow whatever thoughts I have to run completely through my mind. Some good. Some bad. I feel calmer and more aware for it. I'm not writing as regularly as I have before but I'm fine with it. I write when I can. No unnecessary stress for me if I can help it. And calling out negative thoughts (sometimes out loud) has helped a lot as well.

    1. I am so glad to hear you found your way into meditation. I used to think is sounded silly, but honestly it's some of the best time I spend to recenter my world. Next step for me is not yelling at other drivers. That's gonna take a bit more time. Thanks for sharing your journey.

  6. Thanks, Miffie! All great suggestions. #3 and #6 are good ones for me. I've also found that remembering we can't control everything in relation to our books helps ease the pressure a bit. We tend to blame ourselves for every up and down, but doing our best, then remembering to step back and let go (let it goooo....ha!) can give us a moment to breathe.

    1. Yes. Letting it go can be so hard. We like to manage everything, and then carry that burden of blame, when we just can not control everything. And now "Let it goooooo" is going through my head today. Thanks for sharing, Colleen!

  7. Miffie,

    This post is amazing! Your advice applies to everyone, not just writers. And with the continuing global crisis, all your advice is even more relevant. Thank you so much for taking the time to put this together and share with us. I appreciated the links sprinkled throughout the post to provide additional information. Your title for the post was spot on.

    We writers often forget that...
    (a) It is often about endurance, and we need to take that into account when managing our lives.
    (b) Pointing out this happens for writers as well. I can't help but wonder if the rest of the world thinks writers just sit at a desk and typing away with the process much less stressful than other jobs, including physically. But with that said, we writers also need to be reminded that our jobs are stressful. We can forget that.

    I'm going to share this link with some non-writer friends who are nearly burned out and need to hear this. Great advice and I really appreciate it!

    ~ Cindy

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