Last time I blogged about something close to home for me, and I think to many writers: depression. It’s no secret that the book industry is maddening and difficult, and it’s no secret that creative brains have been linked to depression, so it seems logical to me that writers are prone to it. Knowing that isn’t enough for me, though. I want to be proactive.
Thankfully, I’ve made great progress over the years. I still have my bouts, but much less often and for shorter periods. Part of that is luck, part of it is work, and part of it is learning. Everyone is different, of course, and I’m certainly no expert, but I thought today I’d focus on the positive by sharing with you some of the things I’ve learned that help me.
I was honestly shocked when I realized how important this is to my mental well-being. Sunshine, really? But yes, really. I try to go outside every single day, even if it’s only for ten minutes. I take walks, check the mail, water the plants, whatever. I just need to get outside under the actual sun to feel its warmth and soak up its light. If the sun’s in hiding, I use a sun lamp and space heater. They’re not nearly as effective (which perhaps explains my annual winter blues), but they’re still better than nothing. And so is being outside even on cold, gloomy days, when it comes down to it. The great outdoors are a magical thing.
Sucks, doesn’t it? I’m a writer, not a model or a firefighter; I thought I’d escape that whole exercise thing. Turns out that mental health and physical health are so deeply intertwined that they’re pretty much the same thing. The brain is part of the body, after all. I’m not big on exercise, though. I’m just not. Fun activities like hiking and dancing and kayaking are great, but I don’t have time to make them a frequent part of my life. Yet when you look at the stationary lifestyle of most writers, it becomes obvious that we need to pay special attention to exercise. For me, a bare-minimum solution is working out 2-3 times a week. Yoga and/or stretching brings me peace and balance. Weight-lifting brings me strength and self-esteem. And cardio brings me energy and endorphins. I can track a noticeable trend in my mood based on my physical activity.
An Ergonomic Space
Again, the body and the mind are intertwined, and writers spend a huge amount of our time sitting at a computer. Having chronic discomfort from sitting wrong can contribute to lethargy, crankiness, and eventually depression. A little over a year ago I took about a week to make my desk space more ergonomic, and my wrists, neck, and back thank me. I bought an ergonomic keyboard and installed a pullout tray for it to sit in under my desk so I wouldn’t be reaching up to my laptop keys. I bought a laptop stand so my neck wouldn’t always be craned down. And I removed the armrests on my chair, which got in the way of my arm hanging naturally to reach the mouse. Add them together, and what a huge difference!
The single biggest change in how I handle my depression came when I was in college and I (begrudgingly) joined a group meditation class for depression. As many of you may know by now, I’m very very grounded, and I don’t stomach spiritual-plane type stuff well, so I was ready to hate this class. I really lucked out, though, because the particular type of meditation I was taught was mindfulness meditation based on breathing. My instructors wanted hard results. They didn’t want to talk about feelings or delve into the past; they wanted us to recognize and acknowledge emotions and then breathe. That was it, not a mumbo or a jumbo to be seen.
The best thing about (my version of) mindfulness meditation is that there isn’t a wrong way to do it. There’s no time requirement. No goal. All you do is sit back and take stock. How am I feeling? Acknowledge that, and let it go if you want (or hold on). Then breathe, paying close physical attention to your body. Feel your lungs, your feet, your throat, your face. Notice it. That’s it.
If even that seems too much, or isn’t your cup of tea, try taking a different type of break. I use Work Rave to remind me when I’ve been staring at the screen too long. It encourages micro-breaks and occasional longer breaks, and even shows you stretches to help prevent repetitive motion injury. You can download Work Rave for free or you can set a timer and stop every hour or so to stretch, walk around, and change focus. It’s good for the body and the mind.
Okay, so all of my tips so far have been body-based. Shows what camp I’m in, eh? (Camp Science! Provable results!) But of course, the mind needs tending all its own, too. Aside from general things that all people with depression should consider, writers in particular can benefit from emphasizing social connection. Especially for those of us doing this full-time, it can become a very solitary pursuit. Solitude can be wonderful for creativity, but too much of it breeds sorrow and disconnection. Of course, joining clubs and volunteering and things of that nature are always great options. So is spending time with friends and family.
But for writers specifically, no matter how introverted, I think it’s incredibly important to interact with other writers. Online is better than nothing, but seeing other writers face-to-face on a regular basis is invaluable. Friends and family can be wonderfully supportive, but if they’re not doing what you’re doing, there’s only so much they can understand about what you’re going through. Writing friends get it, though, and the feeling that we’re not alone – that others understand us and are fighting for the same things – is a huge mental boost.
And finally, what about purely mental things when you don’t have time to go see your fellow writers? Here are some of the writing-related things I do to help counteract depressive tendencies.
I talk about it, as evidenced by this post, many past posts in this category of my blog, and occasional tweets and statuses. I try not to talk about it in mundane, whiny ways, but I speak up when I feel the need to, and I ask for support when I want it. Depression is a very common struggle, especially among writers, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing makes a burden feel heavier than trying to keep it a secret.
I keep a joy jar. This year I’ve been adding notes to my joy jar every time I feel like it – something I’ve accomplished, something nice someone said, something fun I did, etc. Most (but not all) of them are writing-related because I keep it in my office. I plan to read through all of them at the end of the year, but honestly, that’s a bonus. The real gift is in taking time to stop and put weight on the good things.
Likewise, I keep a “brag box” file in my computer. Whenever I get a good review, super sweet comment, or encouragement from someone I admire, I copy-paste it into one long file of kindness. When I feel super low, I go back and read through that file to remind myself how many people believe in me. It’s hard to feel alone or like a failure when you’re swimming in the voices of people who’ve taken the time to encourage your art. ♥
So that’s it for now: the best practices I’ve found to combat my depression. Writers, creatives, and anyone who feels like joining the conversation: Do you struggle with depression? What tips help you? Please feel free to share below!