There are a lot of myths surrounding being a writer.
The biggest and most dangerous is that we have to suffer for our art. This “misery myth” holds that writers are moody, fragile, flighty, and prone to bouts of depression—and that we need those things in order to be good at our craft.
It’s true that writers are around eight times as likely to suffer from mental illness than those who don’t pursue writing as a career, according to Kay Redfield Jamison, a psychology professor at Johns Hopkins who wrote Touched with Fire, an excellent book on the topic. But that doesn’t mean that you need to suffer in silence.
Why Are Writers Depressed?
So why are writers more prone to depression and anxiety, anyway?
The answer lies deep within our brains.
Studies have shown that in most people, the right precuneus, the part of the brain that is responsible for coming up with ideas only fires up a few times a day—it’s mostly resting while you go about your business and get stuff done. But in writers and other creative professionals, this area fires up all the time.
It’s what lets us do what we do—we’re always thinking of new ideas and tying what’s going on around us into our memories, experiences, and dreams.
Basically, we can’t turn off the firehose of ideas. And that gets pretty darn exhausting; it makes it hard to focus, hard to tune out the flood of thoughts, and hard to rest and regenerate.
But then there’s also the situational factors.
Writing as a profession, unfortunately, tends to create a perfect storm of conditions that can crank up the dial on our biological tendencies towards depression, anxiety, and overwhelm.
Let’s look at a few—and what we can do about them.
Writing is a pretty solitary profession. We’re tucked away in front of a keyboard or notebook for hours at a time, with no company other than our thoughts and the characters we create. This one factor is a huge contributing issue for mental health challenges.
While it’s good to like your own company and to be able to spend time with yourself and your thoughts, too much time alone can lead to a significantly increased risk of depression and other negative consequences. Psychology Today has written about the dangers of loneliness, which extends to the life of a writer.
Without enough social contact, our levels of stress hormones rise, we stop being able to cope with setbacks, and we may isolate ourselves even more because our energy levels fall and we feel generally less positive.
What To Do
Especially when you’re feeling depressed, it can seem like a huge challenge to get out and interact with other people.
But that’s what you need to do—get out from behind the computer, leave the house, and interact with others. And I don’t mean just waving to someone at the office. You need to actually interact and spend time connecting with someone at least a few times each week.
Consider scheduling a standing coffee date with a friend—maybe a fellow writer—to check in with each other and act as each other’s safety valves. Maybe you can start volunteering for an hour a week at a charity that’s meaningful to you (volunteering has been shown to increase happiness and reduce depression).
Whatever it is, actually schedule human interaction into your week. Planning it out on your calendar the same way you’d mark down a doctor’s appointment makes you more likely to actually do it, even if you’re not feeling great.
Even starting with baby steps like writing from a coffee shop or coworking space where there are other people around can make a difference. See what works for you and build up from there.
In addition to being alone a lot, we writers tend to work strange hours. Particularly if you’re writing as a side hustle instead of full time, you likely get up super-early or go to bed incredibly late so that you can fit your writing around the rest of your life.
This isn’t exactly helpful for your mental state.
That’s because humans have a certain rhythm and flow to our lives, and forcing ourselves to go too far outside the circadian rhythm can really destabilize all the hormones and stress chemicals that help us balance our moods.
What To Do
The fix here is pretty simple: set boundaries for yourself. It might be tempting to get up at 3am to write—or to not go to bed until 3am—but if you make that a regular habit, you’re going to end up flooded with cortisol and other stress hormones, low on restful melatonin, and miserable.
Set some workable boundaries. If you do your best work in the morning, try getting up only an hour early, not four. At night, shoot for making sure you’re only working till midnight, not 3am.
Again, schedule all this in and treat yourself like a deadline or a priority.
Lack of Sleep
A related issue is lack of sleep. The less you sleep, the less chance your body and brain have to process the day and heal.
That means that your body isn’t processing all those stress hormones and your brain isn’t filing away the day’s ideas and memories. When you get up in the morning, you’re still flooded with stress and racing thoughts and you aren’t fresh and ready for whatever’s coming your way.
Without that ability to refresh, adapt, and regroup, you get run down in a hurry.
What To Do
Make sure you get at least six hours of sleep every night. Eight would be best, naturally, but we all have different target levels of sleep—and we often need less sleep as we get older.
But we all still need sleep, and we need quality sleep. Make sure your room is dark and quiet; invest in a white noise machine or an app that produces sleep-enhancing binaural beats if you need to.
Use comfy sheets, set the temperature to whatever’s most comfortable for you, and again—schedule it in. Make sleep a priority.
Lack of Exercise
Once again, we writers can be our own worst enemies when it comes to self-care. Because we’re hunched at our computers so much, we forget to get out and get active.
Exercise, though, is a huge help when it comes to maintaining solid mental health. Exercising even moderately boosts endorphin levels, and these feel-good chemicals protect our brains and bodies while reducing risk of depression.
What To Do
Get moving! Preferably outside. Getting some sun can also help alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety by boosting Vitamin D production and other good stuff.
You don’t need to run a marathon to benefit here. Just take a walk around the block after work or after dinner. Walk the dog an extra half-mile each morning. Go for a jog when you’re stuck on a scene instead of banging your head against the keyboard.
Every little bit adds up, and you don’t need to do huge, time-consuming sweat sessions to benefit. 10 minutes of stretching here and a seven-minute workout there will get your blood flowing and your stress levels down, helping you combat depression and anxiety throughout the day.
Nutrition and Self-Medication Issues
It’s easy to fall into a diet of cereal and fast food when you’re focused on your writing.
Worse, it’s easy to start self-medicating with alcohol, drugs, or even junk food if you’re not feeling quite right emotionally. Too many alcoholics and drug abusers start out just trying to mask symptoms of depression or anxiety, then find themselves spiraling even further out of control.
What To Do
Keep an eye on your intakes. Are you eating a balanced diet with fruit and vegetables and grains and lean protein? Have you forgotten what a banana looks like, but the folks at the drive-thru know your standing burger order? It might be time to see a nutritionist for some advice.
Are you drinking more alcohol than even coffee? This is a tricky one, because alcoholism is a serious disease that requires serious help. But if you’ve noticed that your drinking (or drug use, or gambling, or whatever) is cutting into the rest of your life, whether that’s writing, relationships, or anything else, the time might be right to get help. Check out your local support group and go from there.
Rejection and Self-Criticism
The biggest challenge to a writer’s mental health isn’t something we consciously build into our schedules, though—it’s the fact that we can’t control our careers as much as we might like.
Being a writer goes hand-in-hand with being rejected. We’re constantly sending our deepest thoughts and feelings and ideas out into the world for other people to go through. And unfortunately, that means that we have to deal with snide remarks, bad reviews, and outright rejections.
All that adds up. And not in a fun, happy way.
Plus, we tend to be intensely self-critical. We want every scene and action to be perfect, every character to be overflowing with meaning and life, and every book to be the best it possibly can be.
So we squint at ourselves and demand insane standards of perfection. We celebrate when people like our work, but we beat ourselves up the minute we get less than a five-star review.
On top of all that, we’re dependent on others for our income—on agents and editors and publishers to accept our work, on readers to buy it, on reviewers and others to promote it. It’s just not possible to write a book, hit “publish,” and automatically have a career. There’s a lot of work involved and a lot of looking to other people for help, support, and sales.
This kind of constant criticism, lack of control, and worry wears down your mental defenses and makes it easier and easier to fall short on all the other things that can help you maintain and support your mental health, like eating right and exercising.
What To Do
This one’s a challenge, because rejection, criticism, and a lack of control are all part of the profession of writer.
One big step you can take is to start to let go of perfectionism. You’re never going to write the perfect book; that just doesn’t exist. Write the best you can, hire a great editor to help you improve from there, and then let go. Not everyone will like your work, and that’s okay—if you’ve done your best, it’s great.
Maybe stop reading all your Amazon and Goodreads reviews; while it’s good to get insights into what works and what doesn’t in your writing, reading every review that comes out is a recipe for disaster when it comes to supporting your mental health and toning down your inner critic.
Set goals for yourself that don’t rely on other people. Decide that you’re going to write two books this year—but not that you’re going to make X dollars of sales or get a huge publishing contract. Make your goals things that you control and can work for and you’ll have a more satisfying sense of accomplishment and a great mental boost when you achieve them.
Part of the misery myth is that if you get help or treatment for your depression, anxiety, or bipolar symptoms, you’ll lose your creative spark.
But that’s just not true.
In reality, the symptoms of depression make it nearly impossible for us to keep writing.
Think about it. When you’re depressed, everything is in bleak black and white. You don’t have any energy. Nothing seems worthwhile. You can’t make decisions; you can’t spur yourself on to take risks or start anything new. All you want to do is pull the covers over your head, because what’s the point, anyway?
If you can’t muster the energy to take a shower, you sure can’t craft a gripping novel full of vibrant characters.
Writers do not have to be depressed to succeed. What Hemingway famously called “the writer’s reward” is, in fact, a barrier to our success.
Instead of hiding your struggle or thinking that it’s just part of being a writer, reach out and get help.
May is Mental Health Awareness month, and there are all kinds of resources available to help you gain better coping skills and shatter the misery myth once and for all.
You don’t necessarily need to go on medication to help yourself work through mental health challenges. But the only way you can find that out is to talk with a qualified professional—someone who you feel comfortable with and who is willing to explore all the possibilities that make sense for you as an individual.
If you don’t have a good mental health facility in your area or you don’t feel comfortable talking to your doctor, consider trying a telemedicine program. These low-cost services connect you with actual certified health professionals like professional clinical psychologists via your phone or tablet. You can talk to a therapist, psychologist, or other professional and start getting some support from the comfort and privacy of your couch.
If you’re worried that going on an antidepressant or other medication will dull your ability to be creative, hang in there. Not all medications have the same side effects, and it’s possible to find one that helps lift the crushing symptoms of depression that can hold you back while not stifling your creative juices.
And of course, medicine isn’t the only solution. For less severe cases of depression or anxiety, you can try biofeedback, cognitive behavior therapy, and other techniques that can help you basically reprogram your brain, getting you out of the feedback loop of self-doubt and chronic worry that can afflict even the most well-adjusted writer from time to time.
There are a lot of ways we can take care of ourselves and create healthy supports for our mental health as writers. We don’t need to be miserable; we don’t need to be depressed.
We’re inherently creative and that comes with some challenges—but we’re writers. We thrive on challenges, mental exercises, and finding solutions to issues.
Mental health. We got this.
The misery myth is just that—you don’t need to be depressed to be a good writer. Take care of yourself and support your mental health for a better life and career.
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