Writing and Mental Health

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.

Sunshine

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.

Physical Activity

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!

Breaks

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.

Social Interaction

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.

Positivity Games

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!

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  • Melissa Crytzer Fry

    Love this, Annie! Sunshine and physical activity are HUGE boosts for me when I’m just not feelig motivated. I think the other “body” part of your conversation revolves around food. When I’m in a sugar-fest kind of pattern, energy, creativity and mood falter. Fueling up appropriately is critical! Great tips (I had a kindness file, too. Love the joy jar).

    • Thanks! Food, of course. I was thinking about writer-specific things, but now that you mention it, I bet many writers (and officer workers/computer users) are prone to snacking on junk food. And others forget to eat, which is no good either. Great point!

  • Peggy

    This is a really excellent post just full of ideas gained from experience and such a great way to help yourself & your writer friends & associates! I’ve always been fascinated with how many writers & other artists struggle with depression. I’m not a writer but have struggled through a few bouts of mostly situational depression in my life. I’m also a Social Worker & deal with depressed people on a daily basis. There have been studies that show having certain lighting in nursing homes significantly lowers depression and many studies on the positive effects of exercise on depression. I wish nursing homes would all use these methods, which in some cases could eliminate antidepressants. These people are already on so many medications.

    I’m also interested in recent brain science & cognitive behavioral therapy as related to depression. Studies support the fact that each time you have a positive thought about your mood or take a positive action, your brain actually changes, and that’s exactly what every one of your suggestions is! I worked with a counselor/psychologist/coach who suggested that I envision lights flashing all around my brain and/or confetti showering me from above each time I made a deliberate positive thought. It may sound silly, but I’ve been using it for years and it helps.

    I love your joy jar and brag box ideas! There have also been studies showing that the practice of deliberate gratitude changes your mood, and that’s exactly what you’re doing! You’ve inspired me to start a joy jar for 2016:) I also keep a “silly” file with cartoons, jokes, etc. I have my Christmas tree lit every minute I’m home, & it gives me a little happy rush every time I walk by it:)

    I like Melissa’s point about food. I’ve known several people with Bipolar Dis & Depression through the years and noticed that many of them have unhealthy eating habits & often drink sugary drinks throughout the day (way beyond an occasional coke or cookie) I’m not saying that sugar causes Bipolar or depression (!), but it sure doesn’t help. I also realize that I haven’t been through the struggle of people with serious depression and can see how that could be a circle. If you’re in a deep depression it’s got to be incredibly hard to get up, get out, & buy or prepare healthy meals. But for most of us who have milder forms or occasional bouts, we can do many of these things that you’ve suggested.

    • I love hearing the reinforcement and all these extra perspectives and confirmation. You have a good point about people struggling with active and/or more serious depression. In this post I focused on small, preventative measures, really, but sometimes those small things seem impossible in the thick of it. But that’s why I do them — so I’m less likely to ever get to a place where they aren’t enough or aren’t accessible. Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

  • This post was fascinating to me. I love how pro-active you are in finding solutions for your depression. I especially like the joy jar and brag box ideas. So sweet! I hope this winter is more sunny than usual for you. 🙂

  • What a great post, Annie! I struggle with depression as well. Sunshine is a great combatant for depression. It’s the vitamin d we get from sun that helps. People with Seasonal Affective Disorder use special lamps to help. Exercise also helps me. Unfortunately, I fractured my tibia in July and haven’t gotten back into my workout routine. This has a lot to do with some other physical issues I’m dealing with too. Currently doing physical therapy to retrain some muscles that have decided they need to be clenched at all times. *sigh* I’m also using an app called Pranayama to help me breathe and relax. My writing group has been fantastic. They not only help with my writing, but provide an outlet to discuss words and our love of them. I had a joy jar, but stopped using it when we moved (nearly three years ago). I need to dig it out and start using it again. Thanks for the reminder. A kindness file sounds like an idea I can get behind as well.

    • Oh, I’ll have to check out Pranayama. I’m so sorry to hear about your injury. I hope you recover soon! Thank you, Missy.

  • Cynthia Robertson

    Such a great post, Annie! The perfect time of year for it, too. Lots of us get the winter doldrums, so you’re not alone. Your advice is spot on, as usual. I love the idea of a ‘brag box’. What a great way to remind ones self of how many people are kind, and care – and of the small moments of success (or large, as the case may be).

    Just want to say thanks again for Birdbox – that little book scared me stupid. I read it in just three sit-downs, which is unheard of for this sloooow reader. I’ll be keeping that book on my shelf of favorites, and know I will pick it up again. Now I can’t wait till he writes something else!

    • Thanks! Yes, winter is always so dreary, especially after the cheer of the holidays has faded away and all that’s left is cold. 🙁

      I’m thrilled that you enjoyed Bird Box!! Thank you so much for telling me. Awesome. And yes, me too re: Malerman’s next book. Can’t wait!

  • Caitlin Cunningham

    I used to think Seasonal Affective Disorder was bs until moving to Portland. But now I’m in the throes of my first PNW winter, and I haven’t seen the sun in over a month. I’m definitely concerned about the lack of sunshine’s impact on my mental health. Gonna have to get me one of those lamps.

  • I love the idea of a joy jar! Sometimes it’s easy for me to let my anxiety, doubts, and fear overwhelm me. Having a joy jar to sift through sounds like a good way to remind myself of all the good things I’ve enjoyed up to that point. Thanks so much for sharing!

    • You bet! It’s been a nice way to encourage myself to stop and acknowledge the good things; it’s so easy to let them slip by in the barrage of to-dos and worries.

  • Traci Kenworth

    I use a lot of the same ones you do, though I need to do more physical. I’ve taped a few workouts to try in that area. I heard that exercise helps in the creativity department. I may loathe it, but if it helps, I’ll suffer through it, lol.

    • Haha, I hear ya. I have noticed that walking is one of my most creative times — that and driving. It’s something about doing something that forces you away from distractions but doesn’t require thought. Sometimes I go on brainstorming walks and come back with problems solved!

      • Traci Kenworth

        I would walk but with the weather being iffy right now and winter about to set in, I think aerobics might work out better. For sure in Spring though!!

  • Another important and helpful post! Seriously none of that can be underrated, but oh gosh lack of sunshine can only make a bad problem worse.

  • S.I. Rosenbaum

    You forgot “Take depression seriously as a disease, see a doctor, go on medication.” These things are helpful for temporarily improving your mood. They are not effective against major mental illness.

    • In this post, I was targeting writers and preventative measures, not general depression and more serious treatment. My focusing on lifestyle changes was not intended to be an exclusion of more serious measures! I take depression very seriously as a disease, and I do encourage people to see their doctor about it and discuss medication. I didn’t include antidepressants in this post for several reasons, the main one being that it’s not something I can “recommend”; it’s a much larger and more personal decision than lifestyle changes. That said, these smaller tips for improving mood can be cumulatively effective against major depression; I’ve lived it. One step at a time, one day at a time, for *some* people (of course not all; every person’s needs are different), intentionally and doggedly changing your own brain chemistry through cognitive re-patterning is enough. For others, it simply won’t be, in which case I absolutely support seeking medical help. Me sharing my personal experiences wasn’t intended to be taken as a dismissal of other people’s; I’m very sorry if it came across that way.

    • Peggy

      Research shows that therapy is often just as effective as medication. There has been a lot of research about this in recent years. Nonetheless, there are people who have to take meds and some people who do best with meds & therapy. Also, if you think about it, meds only temporarily improve your mood, also. You have to repeat regularly just as you do therapy or any of these other wonderful suggestions. Whatever method works for a particular person’s particular type of depression will have to be repeated regularly.