I Sneeze When I Write! Psychogenic Sneezing, or Something Else?

Reader’s Question

I have a peculiar problem. I asked a psychologist about it once before but not only did he not have an explanation for me, he said it was the weirdest thing he had ever heard. A psychologist said that. The problem is this. I write a little bit, but some days I will sit at the computer for hours and pound out page after page. It’s usually during my most productive, most creative times that it happens. When the creative juices are flowing, and I find myself in the zone where I can write fluidly and free associate words to the wanderings of my imagination, I sometimes start to sniffle. Then my eyes start to water, and my nose itches and I have to sneeze. I have to sneeze BAD. I hold it off as long as I can because this is my best writing. I can barely see the screen and I’m blowing my nose over and over just to stave it off for a few more seconds. But eventually I start sneezing. And I don’t stop until I get away from the computer, walk away, blow my nose a few million times and try not to think about what I’m writing for ten minutes or so. Eventually I get it under control and I can sit back down, but then the creativity is extinguished and I can’t get it to return without the same effects. It’s not an allergy. I’ve had this for over ten years, in four states, it can happen in any season, any room on my house, with or without the cat on my lap, but it only happens when I am able to turn on the writing juice. It didn’t happen when I’m writing this and it never happens while writing anything I have outlined or planned out, only when writing off the cuff, when I can actually feel the gears in my brain switching. It would really be nice if I could just write without some bizarre function of my brain stopping me — never mind that such a thing shouldn’t be possible. Any ideas??

Psychologist’s Reply

Wow…what a great question. This situation may require a detective who is part psychologist, part neurobiologist, and even part computer geek. Some conditions that might cause this:

  • Psychogenic sneezing: a form of conversion reaction (in psych terms) where your intense need to write is expressed in physical symptoms — in this case sneezing. It’s like wanting to hit someone so hard that your arm freezes.
  • Allergic reactions: You don’t have to have allergies to have allergic reactions or to respond to irritants in the environment. We all sneeze if we try to look at the sun, but that’s not an allergy.

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Based on your description:

  • You are experiencing a histamine release. That’s what produces the entire symptom package of watery/itchy eyes, itchy nose, and urgency to sneeze. Histamine is the target for many allergy medications — giving us antihistamines.
  • You experience this in two distinct situations — when you are “in the zone” writing and when you are writing on the computer for a prolonged period of time (while in the zone).
  • You don’t experience it during boring, calm, organized writing activity or activity on the computer that is brief.
  • You probably don’t have a consistent allergy status based on what you’ve said — although I’m not an allergy specialist obviously.
  • Your sneezing appears directly linked to accessing your creativity. It doesn’t occur (as far as I know) in other situations where you might be stressed or anxious.

My theory:

  • Anyone who has ever been “in the zone” will tell you it’s a special, neurochemical event involving hyperfocus, fluidity of thought, high organization, excited tension, etc. It’s a heightened state of arousal and awareness that increases productivity and facilitates highly effective functioning.
  • From a psychophysiological (whew!) standpoint, being in the zone is actually a release and increase in arousal-related neurochemicals, typically norepinephrine, dopamine, and…here it comes…histamine. The release of these neurochemicals produces your sense that your circuits are switching in your brain. In your “zone” process, your body is increasing the production of these chemicals and what you are experiencing is the gradual increase of histamine — producing the allergy-like symptoms you exhibit. This is why it doesn’t happen during “calm”, noncreative, or nonaroused states such as outlines, email, or even non-writing stressful situations. Obviously, you are getting into a Big Zone here to have this much neurotransmitter release. Similar situations are found in long distance runners (“runner’s high”), partygoers (second wind), etc.
  • This is also why, after dealing with the histamine release, the “zone” disappears. I don’t mean to sound kinky, but the entire process is similar to a sexual release which goes from arousal to intense release to relaxation in simple terms.
  • There is one other possibility. You can experience a histamine release with prolonged exposure to your computer. Computers, by nature, attract dust, pollen, etc. due to their electromagnetic fields. After many hours on the computer, you may be experiencing a histamine release due to exposure to these substances, eye fatigue from the monitor, etc.

Recommendations:

  • First, clean and vacuum your computer frequently. Keep it in a well-ventilated place. I didn’t have the impression you were hand-writing when in the zone so you need an anti-histamine computer as much as possible.
  • If we proceed with my theory, the more intense your “zone” becomes, the more likely the release of histamine. If you feel a “zone” approaching, you may want to try taking an over-the-counter non-drowsy antihistamine in an attempt to block the histamine release or minimize it.
  • While in the zone, shift from computer to a voice-recorder to get away from the computer enviroment (less dust, less eye strain, etc.). Dictate and pace in the zone for a while, then return to the computer. Alternating may help keep you in the zone while burning off some arousal energy.
  • While creativity is arousing, remembering creativity can also be arousing. Read what you have written, try to jog your memory and return to the zone for shorter periods.

I think what you are experiencing is very real…a bit weird, but hey, that’s one of the costs of being creative. I suspect this is a normal physiological response that you’ll need to manage by trial and error. It can be worked out.

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