By Ben Allen
J.K. Rowling once described her experience with depression
in an interview with The Times:
“Depression is the most unpleasant thing I have ever experienced…It is that absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope. That very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad. Sad hurts but it’s a healthy feeling. It is a necessary thing to feel. Depression is very different.”
Many famous writers have suffered from depression. From modern day greats like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling to writers of the classics like Mark Twain and Emily Dickinson, they’ve struggled with it both on and off the page. In fact, psychological studies over the years have suggested that creatives, in general, have an unusually high number of mood disorders, compared with the general population.
That being said, depression does not make you a great author. It’s not a positive thing. Depression is unhealthy, dangerous, and unpleasant. Writers need to understand the perils of depression and how easily they might slip into it.
Some symptoms of depression include:
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making details
- Feeling tired, fatigued, or having less energy
- Feeling guilty, worthless, or helpless
- Insomnia or excessive sleeping
- Irritability and restlessness
- Lost of interest in hobbies once pleasurable
- Overeating or loss of appetite
- Constant pains and aches
- Persistent sad or empty feelings
- Thoughts of suicide or suicide attempts
Why Are Writers More Often Depressed?
There is no single cause for depression as it’s an incredibly complex mental illness, but potential risk factors include extreme stress, traumatic experiences, substance abuse, conflict, health problems, social isolation, and genetics. Most of these can happen to anybody, but one is especially rampant in writers: social isolation.
There are many reasons people live isolated lives, whether by choice or because of circumstances out of their control, but it can be dangerous. According to Psychology Today, spending long periods of time alone can cause serious depression along with other health issues that could actually reduce lifespan.
The act of writing is a solitary job. It’s simply you and your computer, typewriter, or quill and paper. Writing isn’t a social activity. In fact, even having people around can be highly disruptive to the writing process.
So writers seek solitude, whether it’s in a bedroom or a cabin in the woods. This self-imposed isolation may last for long stretches of the day, or even weeks or months on end.
Combine all of the pressures from everyday life with social isolation and the stresses that accompany writing, and it’s no wonder writers get depressed.
How can we avoid falling into the depression trap?
Writers are susceptible to depression because they spend a good amount of time alone, so making sure you have social interactions with others is incredibly important. Set aside specific times during your day or week to be around other people. Friends, family, or even strangers will do. Talking about your feelings and challenges can be a big help, both for your writing and for your mental health.
Volunteering is also great for keeping depression at bay. According to Wake Forest University: “People choose to volunteer because they feel better about themselves. In fact, studies have shown this self-esteem enhancement isn’t just in their heads.”
In fact, in a 2013 study on volunteering, researchers reported that not only is volunteering associated with increased happiness and lower depression, but it also reduces the risk of premature death by 22 percent.
Volunteering helps boost your self-esteem, gets you around other people, and makes you feel good about helping others. It also helps you understand people’s challenges and needs, which can give you insights about human characteristics and struggles.
Not only are you helping your mental health, you’re becoming a better writer at the same time.
Another struggle for some writers is getting outside and exercising. As part of the reclusive nature of writing, we tend to hide away in rooms for long stretches of time, pushing our minds to their limits. Once a writer is finished for the day, she’s exhausted and ready to relax.
Exercise is important to staying happy because it releases endorphins into the bloodstream that make you us feel good about ourselves, physically and emotionally. We writers are so self-reflective that we pick at our flaws constantly, including whatever problems we find in our writing, so a positive boost is just what we need.
While there is not a “best time” to workout, creating a schedule for normal exercise and sticking to it is important. I like going for a run or heading to the gym in the middle of the day when my brain is dragging and I can’t seem to focus. Not only does my mind get a rest—perfect for subconsciously working out a solution to a roadblock—but I come back to my computer ready to get back to work.
Since writers spend enormous amounts of time indoors working, we don’t get a lot of sunlight. SAD and the writer blahs can be big contributors to depression, along with vitamin D deficiency.
Get outside often. Take a laptop to a park, outside a coffee shop, or just in your backyard to get some sun and fresh air. Along with combating depression, moderate amounts of sunlight helps build strong bones, prevent cancer, and reduce the risk of diabetes and other health problems.
Two symptoms of depression? Feeling lethargic and unmotivated. Falling prey to these symptoms can cause a writer to spiral into a pit of worthlessness and self-doubt.
Setting goals can help a writer regain his motivation. Having a variety of goals, both short-term and long-term, and accomplishing those goals, help increase self-confidence and self-esteem. Try creating achievable benchmarks for yourself, such as writing 500 words at least five days a week, submitting at least one story a quarter to a publication, or attending a writing workshop or conference in the next six months.
It’s best to set goals that aren’t writing related, as well. We all get so absorbed in our work that we forget about everything else, which isn’t healthy. Try setting goals for getting in shape, being social, learning a new skill, or just completing household chores. Having and meeting goals in several aspects of your life can help increase your ability to survive the ups and downs of the writing life.
The secret to successful goal setting, according to Frank L Smoll, psychology professor at University of Washington, is the ABC method: Goals should be Achievable, Believable, and you must be Committed to working on them.
If your goals follow this formula, you will find yourself succeeding on a normal basis—perfect for boosting mood and helping build up your resistance to depression.
Heavy drinking and drug abuse are linked to depression. Some people use these to escape from stress and forget their troubles, or they are simply addicted to them. Nearly one-third of depressed people also have a serious drinking problem.
Drug use and alcohol abuse aren’t just symptoms of depression, though. They can both cause severe brain damage, which can also cause depression, creating a vicious cycle.
If you feel like you need drugs and alcohol to get through your day, your addiction might correlate with being seriously depressed. Addiction is a serious problem, but it is possible to defeat it and get on the road to recovery.
Look into attending local support groups (find some in your area here), meet with a drug abuse therapist, and make a plan to reduce and eliminate your addictions. There are a lot of tools out there and people that want to help you.
Am I Depressed, or Just Feeling Down?
Not every negative emotion means you’re depressed. We are allowed to be sad, let down, angry, and every other emotion under the sun, because it’s part of life. So what do you do if you’re just feeling down, but you aren’t clinically depressed?
All of the above steps will help you feel better about yourself, but sometimes simply breaking your routine and doing something enjoyable is all you need. Get away from your current writing project and write about something different. Take a mental health day (without feeling guilty!) and relax, catch up on your chores, or go on an adventure.
There is nothing selfish about doing what makes you happy.
When to Get Professional Help
Again, depression isn’t good. It’s a serious problem, and if you are feeling depressed, please don’t hesitate to reach out for professional help.
One of the biggest difficulties with diagnosing depression is that people don’t realize they need help. Some of the major warning signs include:
- thoughts or desires to self harm,
- extreme lack of motivation or energy,
- losing interested in things that use to make you happy,
- constantly over or under eating,
- and a constant stream of negative emotions.
Depression is nothing to be embarrassed about. Many writers have struggled with it, so don’t feel bad about meeting with a therapist. It can make a big difference in your life.
Do you suffer from depression? What have you done to help yourself stay motivated and writing? Have a success story about your battle with depression? Share with us in the comments below.
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Follow him on Twitter @allen24ben to read more of his writing.
Ann Treneman “J.K. Rowling, the interview” The Times, June 2000, http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/2000/0600-times-treneman.html.
William Lee Adams, “The dark side of creativity: Depression + anxiety x madness = genius?” CNN, January 22, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/22/world/the-dark-side-of-creativity-vincent-van-gogh/.
Madeline Vann, Pat F. Bass III, MD. “8 Famous Writers With Depression” Everyday Health, June 2013, http://www.everydayhealth.com/depression-pictures/famous-writers-with-depression.aspx#01.
Caroline E. Jenkinson, et al., “Is volunteering a public health intervention? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the heath and survival of volunteers,” BMC Public Health, 2013; doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-13-773, http://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-2458-13-773.
“Symptoms of Depression” WebMD, January 2014, http://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/detecting-depression.
Maia Szalavitz, “Social Isolation, Not Just Feeling Lonely, May Shorten Lives” Time, March 26, 2013, http://healthland.time.com/2013/03/26/social-isolation-not-just-feeling-lonely-may-shorten-lives/.
“The Psychology of Volunteerism,” Wake Forest University, http://counseling.online.wfu.edu/resources/articles/the-psychology-of-volunteerism/.
“Seasonal Affective Disorder,” Psychology Today, November 18, 2015, https://www.psychologytoday.com/conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder.
Rachel Nall, Mark R Laflamme, “What Are the Benefits of Sunlight?” Healthline, November 2015 http://www.healthline.com/health/depression/benefits-sunlight#Overview1.
“Alcohol and Depression,” WebMD, http://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/alcohol-and-depresssion.
Frank L. Smoll. “Keys to Effective Goal Setting” Psychology Today, November 2013, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/coaching-and-parenting-young-athletes/201311/keys-effective-goal-setting.
“Depression” Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/depression/symptoms-depression.