Why It’s So Hard for Writers to Relax

Filed in When Writing Is Hard by on October 3, 2016 • views: 2014

“You need to relax,” my friends tell me.  “You work too hard.”

I know it’s true. My body gives me clues. Back pain. Eye twitching. Headaches. Stomach upset. Fatigue. It’s obvious when I need to take a step back and just relax.

I schedule the time, and if it’s only an hour or two, I can do it easily. The movie theater saves me on many occasions.

Longer than that? Ugh. I get restless. I start picking up the phone and the computer. Longer than a few hours without being productive? I start to feel guilty.

I was raised by a father who served as a marine overseas and a mother who herself was raised Irish Catholic. In my household, “hard working” was right up there with honesty when it came to personal characteristics, and it was expected that all of us kids would become adept at getting our work done first and foremost.

I learned the lesson well, and it’s helped me to accomplish many things in life. But sometimes, it also makes it difficult to allow myself to sit back and relax.

I’ve noticed a lot of other writers are in the same boat. However we were raised, we’ve learned that to survive as writers, we have to wear many hats. We’re writing part of the day, and then spending a lot of our time editing, marketing, blogging, and staying up-to-date on social media…often while still working a day job.

We’re also fitting in conferences and additional education so we can to stay up-to-date with an ever-changing industry.

All this “doing” can be exciting and energizing, but over time, it can also burn us out. That means we have to be able to step back now and then and relax.

I don’t think I’m alone when I say that this is easier said than done.

10 Reasons Why Writers Find it Hard to Relax

A lot of people have trouble relaxing these days, but writers are particularly vulnerable to having difficulties with it.

Here are just some of the reasons why:

  1. Publishing is moving at a faster and faster rate. We’re all encouraged to write faster and publish more often if we want to truly see a profit from our efforts. This can lead to feeling like we’re always behind.
  2. We put pressure on ourselves to produce—a daily word count or page count—and we feel restless when we fail to meet our own quotas.
  3. We have to do our own marketing. While producing the next book, of course.
  4. We feel the responsibility of having everything on our shoulders—not only the quality of the story, but whether or not it succeeds on the market. If the book doesn’t sell well, we feel like we should have done more—so much for relaxing.
  5. Writing a novel hardly ever goes smoothly. When the inevitable problems show up, we stress about meeting deadlines (whether appointed by ourselves or a publisher), and feel we must solve the problems as quickly as possible. No time to relax.
  6. If we choose self-publishing, we basically have to “go back to school” to learn how to do everything we need to do to make a quality self-published book. All while still writing, marketing, producing, and living the rest of our lives.
  7. We aren’t millionnaires. Most of us are on a budget, and can’t afford to hire on all the help we’d need to really relax. (Wouldn’t a “writing butler” be awesome? “Your cover options for your review, madame…”)
  8. We feel like we’re constantly chasing our tails—there is always something more to be done that we haven’t gotten done and we have no idea how we’re going to get it done in the time we have (or more accurately, don’t have).
  9. We’ve learned to work hard and to work quickly. Most of our lives are spent producing and creating and posting and editing and printing and day by day, we’re making it happen. When it comes time to relax, our brains have trouble making the shift from “doing” to just “being.”
  10. We’re writers and we like writing and when we get a few minutes…shouldn’t we be writing?

The Benefits of Relaxation: Health and Creativity

Despite all the challenges, we know that relaxation is good for us—not only for our health, but our creativity, too.

Studies show that any time we can achieve a deeply relaxed state—such as that we may experience during meditation—our bodies benefit greatly.

In a 2013 study, researchers found that this sort of relaxation:

  • boosted the immune system,
  • jumpstarted energy production,
  • and improved insulin function.

Researchers noted that relaxation could help counteract the negative effects of anxiety, diabetes, high blood pressure, and even aging.

A later 2015 study found that relaxation techniques like yoga, meditation, and prayer could reduce the need for healthcare services by 43 percent. Participants who were trained in a “Relaxation Response Resiliency Program” were much less likely to need a doctor for things like neurologic, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, and gastrointestinal issues.

Relaxation has also been called “creativity’s ultimate partner.”

There’s a reason why we get our best ideas in the shower. It’s when we’re relaxed that the brain can actually settle into its creative mode.

Studies have shown that creativity happens when the brain is at rest, and that long work hours dulls the brain, making us less creative and less productive. Says Geoffrey James in Inc:

“[W]hen it comes to thinking of new approaches–working smart, not hard, as they say– workaholics are worse than useless….Be brave enough to give your brain the leisure it needs to carry your ideas, your career or your company to the next level.”

An interesting study reported in Scientific American showed that relaxation training was especially beneficial to introverts, reducing anxiety and freeing the mind to be creative.

Most of us know on some level that relaxation is a good idea. Actually “getting” relaxed, however, has become more difficult for everyone. In today’s fast-paced, “always on” world, many people are struggling to find a way to really zone out.

Relaxing Can Be Hard Work

An Expedia.com survey reported that only 53 percent of working Americans come back feeling rested after a vacation, and 30 percent have trouble coping with stress while they’re away.

Sometimes we try to cram in too many activities during our time off. But for many writers, I suspect there are two issues:

  • We’re used to being always “on,” always doing something related to our writing, which makes a truly relaxing day seem almost strange. We tend to feel restless and unsure what to do with ourselves.
  • We’re worried about something—upcoming book launch, poor book sales, the need for more marketing, a newsletter that needs to go out, where we’re going to get the cash for our next planned conference, how to work out a plot problem in our latest novel, etc.

Of course there are all the demands of the modern life as well that can make relaxation difficult. We’re all pressured to achieve, go after our dreams, be successful—and stay up with our Facebook posts.

Writers feel pressure to make that next book happen, to get that publishing contract or make the next novel a bestseller or gain thousands of email subscribers or whatever—all while keeping a roof over our heads, our children healthy and happy, the car running well, the basement from leaking, etc.

In our culture, achievement is often equated with success, and we can feel constantly driven toward that next goal to the point that relaxation becomes difficult.

All this pressure and anxiety disrupts the body’s ability to relax, so that even when we try to, we can find ourselves fighting a losing battle.

“Trying” to Relax Can Make Relaxing Harder

Some of us make valid efforts to relax—but that can actually make a difficult situation even worse.

Have you had this experience? You decide you’ve been burning the candle at both ends, so you make a point to relax one evening.

“I must relax,” you tell yourself. You brew up a nice hot cup of tea and sit down with a good book, fully intending to relax.

You get through maybe the first paragraph and your mind is racing. You think of all the things you need to do, the problems you’re facing in your writing or your life, and oh, yeah, the clean dishes haven’t been put away yet. You jump up to put the dishes away, jot down a few notes about the problems you’re facing, and then head back to your chair, intending this time, to really relax.

Five minutes later, your mind is still racing, and now you’re stressed because you’re finding it so difficult to relax! Your intention to relax has suddenly become another source of stress.

“Scientific research suggests that when we stress about relaxing…” says psychotherapist F. Diane Barth, “we simply cannot actually let go enough. The simple truth: you may be having troubles enjoying your time off because you are working too hard at relaxing!”

How to Help Yourself Truly Relax

What do you do if you find yourself in this situation? You want to relax, and you know you need to—both for your health and your creativity—but you’re finding it difficult to really let go.

Here’s the secret:

You have to take your focus off “relaxing” and put it on some activity instead.

Yes—to relax, do something.

Give your brain and body something to do so you’re not stressing about relaxing—just make that “something” an activity that you enjoy and that tends to bring about full-body relaxation.

Here are some things to try. (Notice “watching television” is not on the list—it’s often more stress inducing than relaxing. Even calm shows don’t allow your brain to drift.) If you have other ideas, please add them in the comment section!

  • Yoga: Take a class, or devote 30 minutes to working with a video or simply to enjoy the practice with a candle or some quiet music.
  • Meditation: Studies repeatedly show that simple meditation—sitting quietly while bringing your thoughts back to one image or sound—can help get the body and mind into a completely relaxed state.
  • Walk: Some forms of exercise can actually stress you out more, particularly if you’re training with a certain goal in mind (a marathon, for example). Just going for a walk allows body and mind to relax.
  • Breathe deeply: This is a good one if you don’t have much time. Focus on the diaphragm—most of us breathe from the chest, which utilizes only a portion of the lungs and can actually increase anxiety. Breathe deeply in and out, one hand on the chest, one on the belly. Move the belly more than the chest. Count from 4-6 for each inhale and exhale.
  • Spend time in nature: Staring at the ocean, at a calm lake, or even at the leaves rustling in a few trees can create that sense of relaxation you need.
  • Spend time with animals: Nothing relaxes me more than taking a horseback ride. There’s something about spending time with these graceful animals that leaves me feeling like all is right with the world. Choose your favorite animal and find a way to spend more time interacting with him or her.
  • Take a day off: Plan one day a month that you will take off from all your work and writing-related activities. Plan some fun things to do in that day so that you look forward to it.
  • Craft: There’s a reason a lot of writers have taken to knitting—doing something with your hands gives you an activity to focus on, and is also extremely relaxing. Choose your favorite craft—painting, crocheting, sewing, woodworking, coloring, etc.
  • Manage your expectations: Are you expecting too much of yourself? Are you trying to accomplish too much in too little time? If your own expectations are causing you to feel anxious and making you feel like you have no time to relax, re-examine your goals and consider giving yourself a bit more time. Sometimes writing out a new calendar with new deadlines that you can actually meet helps you relax more than anything!

How do you help yourself to really relax?

Manoj K. Bhasin, et al., “Relaxation Response Induces Temporal Transcriptome Changes in Energy Metabolism, Insulin Secretion and Inflammatory Pathways,” PLoS ONE, 2013; 8 (5): e62817 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0062817.

James E. Stahl, et al., “Relaxation Response and Resiliency Training and Its Effect on Healthcare Resource Utilization,” PLoS One, October 13, 2015, http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0140212.

Melinda Beck, “Why Relaxing is Hard Work,” WSJ, June 15, 2010, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704324304575306591706447132.

Geoffrey James, “Neuroscience: Relaxing Makes You More Creative,” Inc, January 12, 2015, http://www.inc.com/geoffrey-james/neuroscience-relaxing-makes-you-more-creative.html.

Scott Barry Kaufman, “Relaxation Benefits Introverts More Than Extraverts in Boosting Creativity,” Scientific American, June 9, 2016, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/relaxation-increases-creativity-of-introverts-more-than-extraverts/.

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Comments (6)

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  1. This is so true. I never really thought about how counterproductive it is to just try to relax. So much more effective to find an absorbing activity. For me, it’s walking in the woods, drawing, making collages and getting away from everything writing-related for a few hours or days. Of course, I’m always itching to get back to writing after doing these things, but the pressure lets up for at least a little while.

    • Colleen says:

      Love the walking in the woods, Nan. Something special about that one for sure—maybe because I don’t have any nearby, so it always feels like a treat!

  2. Karin Stoil says:

    I have a hard time relaxing. My mind is always on a number of things and I can’t focus on just one. The best is when I am reading a good novel, and I am into that story. Then I feel relaxed. Loved reading your blog, lots of good information.

    • Colleen says:

      Yes, difficult to slow the brain down for sure. I bet all writers feel the same when reading…definitely draws you in to where you can just relax. Thanks, Karin! :O)

  3. Boy, can I relate to this, Colleen! It really does seem as if we go at the speed of light, no? And I KNOW how important relaxing is for writing. I love the study about how boredom bolsters creativity. And I think, what, exactly, is boredom?
    Great tips to do so. I, too, have found that if I give my body something to do, and my mind only has to be somewhat checked in (such as taking that walk :), relaxation comes so much more easily.
    Now, to figure out how to be bored 🙂

    • Colleen says:

      Ha ha ha. That is difficult isn’t it? I have found a way—go somewhere and stay overnight in a hotel where you can’t have all your “stuff” around you to do that you usually do. Within a few days (if not less time) that boredom settles in! Of course not always possible but it does work. Otherwise it seems there is always something within reach to get going on!