Breathe! Handling Artistic Frustration Without Giving Up or Going Crazy

Pre-plane selfie.
I’m a giant baby when it comes to air travel.

Last May on the last leg of a trip with a colleague back home from a Web conference, we were flying in a reasonably sized airplane from O’Hare to Bradley International. The plane seemed new enough, freshly painted and vacuumed.

But the second I got on the plane and the pilot announced that due to some reason or other, it was going to be a “bumpy” ride, I felt every muscle in my back tense up until my shoulders pressed against my ears. 

I stayed hypervigilant throughout the trip, alert to the smallest change in engine noise, losing my breath at every twitch and stutter of turbulence. But the real fun came as we began making our descent into Connecticut airspace. The engines throttled back to drop us out of the sky, and we lowered into a thick patch of fog. Then the turbulence began in earnest.

But I noticed a very interesting response from my body perhaps from my reptile brain: as we descended lower and lower, the engine hum becoming softer and less steady as the plane bellied up to the low-pressure system in place over Bradley Airport, I clenched my jaw, bared my teeth ever so slightly, and breathed long, steady, slow breaths as I gripped the plastic armrests of my seat like they were the arms of a drowning man.

The breaths, coming long and slow and with effort through my gritted teeth, somehow managed to soothe my swirling brain even as the turbulence kept the cabin rocking and rolling. And as the ground around Hartford came into view, and the rocky ride calmed, I realized that except for my death grip on the seats, I was already calm. Hyper-alert, listening to every sound, pupils probably dilated, but calm.

Score one for my lizard brain.

Although it’s not quite the imagined mortal mission that flying through turbulence in a pressurized metal death tube, artistic frustration, because it offends the heart and soul, requires just as much effort to control and subdue.

When you get the rejection letter after submitting the full manuscript, or your interview gets cut from the radio schedule, or you miss a deadline that you did everything in your power to meet, you might need a few of these ideas, spawned by that rough airborne afternoon.


The Limb Squeeze

Let’s assume you got a letter. A bad one.

Step one: Sit down.

Step two: Lean slightly forward and grab both legs with both hands just under the knees. Squeeze hard enough that it gets your attention, but stop before it hurts.

Sit up. Breathe. Lean forward and squeeze again. Repeat.

The Hand Massage

According to reflexology, our hands are full of pressure points that do everything from controlling our moods to keeping us from having to pee on long trips.

Let’s go back to that letter. This time, you’re on line in the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru, and you pull out your chirping mobile device. You open an email you just received.

It’s bad news. The worst, in fact. Your agent tried her last trick, and the publisher turned her down. She’s out of ideas. Your book is unsellable. 

Assuming you’re stationary waiting for your iced coffee with turbo shot, make a fist with one hand, and lay the fingers of your other hand over your fist gently, pressing the skin on the back of your hand. Then curl your other hand into a fist, and repeat that motion as slowly as you can manage. 

As you do this, add in this next method:

Bared Teeth Breathing

If you read my intro, you already know this one. In a time of extreme stress, your lizard brain takes over and begins managing your body’s physical stress responses. This one I’ve consciously repeated since my plane experience, and have found the results to be consistently soothing. 

When you read that awful email, your jaw will naturally be tight. If you’re like me, clenching your teeth and working your jaw muscles is how you let off steam and keep yourself from saying things you’ll later regret. 

That’s fine. You can use it. 

When your jaw is clenched and your head is filling with blood and protest, bare your teeth. Breathe through your mouth without unclenching your jaw, steadily and somewhat forcefully, like you’re pushing air through the gaps where you floss. 

The whole idea is that helping control your body’s physical stress response also helps you level out your mental response. In me, stress causes my blood sugar to drop, my hands to shake, and my brain to go all fuzzy. Not ideal conditions for doing one of the most important parts of a writer’s job – processing the bad news that’s part of the lifestyle, and getting on with the work. 
What are your responses to that bad-news email or that unmistakable SASE in your mailbox? Did you find any of these methods helpful? Share in the comments.