Depression is a normal part of life that can torment us at any time. From my experiences, depression is something that we are even more prone to as writers. Why? Because creative writing is very much an isolated, arduous personal venture. So much time spent in solitude, often with little reward, can be harmful to our mental health.
Here is how you can cope with depression as a writer, and hopefully have a better sense of mental wellness overall:
When I say writers’ groups, I mean any kind of writing group: online writing groups, creative writing classes or sessions, writing support groups, and so on. The aim is to find other writers so that you feel less alone. You can find like-minded people who have walked the same (or a similar) creative path.
Just knowing that someone has been through similar things can ignite trust in the journey and keep us going through hard times. As I say, many writers will probably have their own experiences with depression (whether or not it was a result of the writing lifestyle). In a group, you can find comfort in sharing your experiences with other writers who get it.
As writers, we can easily get lost in our projects, to the point where we forget to eat, drink, or sleep. We think this is justified, but it really isn’t. We need to take care of our health first and foremost, as that is the only way we can produce our best work. Mental wellness should be our priority, so taking much-needed breaks is non-negotiable.
Don't burn out! Take breaks:
- Do writing sprints: Write avidly for a set (short) amount of time, then take a break.
- Wear an activity tracker. Set it to vibrate when you’ve been sitting for too long. Then when it vibrates, get up and take a short break.
- Break down your workload into smaller, more manageable tasks. Take a walk (or take another kind of break) after each completed task.
- Read during your breaks, especially if you need to read for your writing research. That way you'll feel productive while taking a break from doing actual writing.
It can become easy to drop a project when you feel low. Allowing yourself set, small increments of time to write ensures that you don’t waste time by not writing, while avoiding overwhelming yourself during a difficult time.
Harness the Depression
Not everyone will agree, but I think that my writing saved me during my depression. Even though at times I believed my writing and lack of success led to the depression, I still wrote. And by continuing to write, I eventually got myself out of the depression. I think I did it by channeling those serious, scary, isolating, and dark thoughts and feelings into my art, where appropriate.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying depression is good for art. I’m not saying being low in this way is “OK” because at least you can write about it. But what I do believe is that depression, as a diagnosed mental illness, is long-lasting. And so, I don’t think you, as a writer who perhaps makes a living this way, can just stop writing while depressed. Instead, you can take whatever is churning inside of you and put it on paper.
You can even work through some tough emotions and beliefs by doing this. Many CBT therapists will suggest negative-thought-challenging exercises to their patients. So, writing about how you feel can only be positive. Does it need to be published afterward? No. Does it need to be shared in any form? Not unless you truly want to. This is for you.
Taking Criticism about Creative Writing
Most writers will face a mountain of criticism, rejection, and self-doubt when sharing their work with the world. It’s very hard to have your artwork, perhaps your life’s work, torn apart by strangers. However, it is unavoidable if you want to be a professional writer of any kind.
So, how do we get past this? We share our work! There’s no other way. The more you write and share your work, receiving criticism and reviews, the more comfortable you will become. It will be hard at first, but this is the only way to harden your skin.
If you are already depressed, then sharing your work will be tough. Hearing criticism whilst you’re vulnerable will feel even worse. This is why I urge you, when you feel that you are in a particularly tough time in your life, to share your work only with trusted people. This way, you’re still working and putting it out there, but with less potential for mental harm.
However, if you aren’t depressed but you feel yourself becoming low due to mounting rejection - I’ve been there - then all I can suggest is that you continue. As mentioned, the only way to become comfortable with rejection, and not take it to heart, is to keep submitting and keep your head up. You’re allowed to feel sad or angry for a time, but then take a deep breath and get back to work. Writing isn’t easy. Otherwise, everyone would do it.
Write in Multiple Locations
When suffering from depression, it can be easy to isolate yourself and remain in bed all day. You’re not alone in this; you’re not wrong in this. However, working to overcome your depression means pushing yourself. It means doing what is hard, like getting out of bed and getting dressed.
If you write from home for a living, then there may be days when you think, “Why bother getting dressed?” But this is not good for you. You won’t believe the effect that simply getting dressed and moving out of your bedroom can have on your mental well-being as a whole.
Don’t get into the habit of writing in the same place every day, either. It’s great that you are writing while feeling so low, but your mood will improve immensely if you can switch it up, too. Try writing in different rooms of the house. When you’re up to it - or even push yourself when you’re not up to it - try to write from your local library or coffee shop. Trust me, it’s important for your mental health.
Stay Active and Social
Everyone, not just those suffering from depression, needs to be both active and social. I’m not saying you need to be keeping busy and partying all the time, but you do need to be around people at some point every day. Writers, as we know, are often alone. It’s just us and the laptop or notebook - not counting the characters in our heads. But it is important to engage in conversations with real people, too, for our own mental health.
When depressed, we don’t always like to be around people. We can feel like a burden, or a killjoy, or just feel too irritable to want to be with people. But I can say from experience that when I’ve forced myself to be with people -- the right people -- it has helped me to feel better, if only briefly. It draws you out of your head for a moment and helps you to relax.
The same goes for activity. Don’t allow your job as a writer to be your excuse for not exercising or being active. Inactivity can cause depression, and it definitely worsens it. So, take breaks from your writing and go to the gym (where you can be both sociable and active!). Or you could go for a walk or to a fitness class. It will help both the depressive feelings and your writing ability.
The endorphins produced by activity will lift your mood, I promise. It’s scientifically proven!
Look after Yourself
The most important way to cope with depression as a writer is to look after yourself. Don’t put work ahead of your health. Don’t put deadlines ahead of your health. Remember, this is your life we’re talking about here. Your livelihood. If you force yourself to work when you are severely low, then you will only worsen the depression. So, please, take care of yourself first.
What to do when you’re too depressed to write:
- Be open and honest with your clients, editor, agent, publisher (or whoever). Tell them how you feel and say you need some time.
- If you can’t write what you’re supposed to be writing, don’t forget that you can write something else instead. Something that is less stressful and perhaps more fun at this time in your life. That way, you’re still working on your craft, but you’re giving yourself a break. Hopefully, you will be able to tackle the more pressing project afterward.
- Instead of writing creatively, you could journal. Write out your thoughts and feelings to see what crops up. It may be insightful.
- Also, never forget the power of speaking about how you feel with trusted people.
- Have some me-time: pamper yourself, read a good book, see some friends, dance and sing. Do whatever you find fun and relaxing. The writing will still be there when you feel healthier.
Please note that this is advice from my own experiences with depression as a writer and author. If you are suffering, please speak with your doctor if you haven’t already.