Why Writers Have Trouble Relaxing—and How to Do It Better!

Filed in The Healthy Writer by on August 12, 2019 4 Comments • views: 239

August 15th is National Relaxation Day.

Fourth-grader Sean Moeller of Michigan is said to have founded the day in 1985. The Des Moines Register reported on the 9-year-old boy’s thoughts on the matter. “People don’t think enough about relaxing,” he told the paper. “They think too much about working, and that’s not good because if you work too hard, then you can get a fever or get run-down and maybe even get sick.”

Out the mouths of babes, right?

Yet Americans—and perhaps specifically, writers and entrepreneurs—have trouble relaxing. According to a survey from Princess Cruises, more than 4 in 10 Americans feel guilty for relaxing while on vacation, say nothing of any other time. Almost a third reported getting stressed out at even the thought of relaxing.

A survey by Allianz Travel showed that over half of Americans hadn’t taken a vacation over the last year, and more than three-quarters admitted to having worked while on vacation. And a 2014 report found that Americans not only work longer hours, but they are more likely to work late at night and on weekends as well. (Sound familiar?)

We know all this work isn’t good for us. Antonyms for “relax” include worry, irritate, and agitate, so chances are if you’re not finding time to relax, you’re experiencing worry, stress, and anxiety. Too much time spent in any of those states increases your risk of both physical and mental health problems and tends to rob you of the other joys of life.

Why such a struggle to truly relax? Find out below—and why you’re favorite method of relaxation may not be that good for you after all.

Why Writers Have Trouble Truly Relaxing

It’s clear that writers, in particular, have a lot to do and usually not enough time to do it in. Since we’re now responsible for building our platforms and marketing our work—all while maintaining a day job in most cases—our to-do lists are usually longer than we can manage.

The solution? Most of us grab any spare minute we can find and use it to work on our writing and platform-building activities.

There’s also a more general problem facing us all, however, and that’s technology. Because we can access our work (and writing-related tasks) from anywhere in the world, we have a hard time disengaging and shutting it down. It used to be that once you left the office you were done, as all the tools you needed to do your job were out of reach. But that’s not the case anymore.

Technology has also made it possible for us to be connected to family, friends, and acquaintances 24/7, and we’ve become addicted to “checking in” at all hours to find out what everyone else is doing. Studies have reported that the more time we spend on social media, the more likely we are to be stressed out and depressed, yet we continue to reach for the phone during the time we’re supposed to be relaxing.

There’s also the fear that many writers have of being inadequate. We want to succeed at this writing business, and we’ve learned that it takes a lot of time and effort to do that, so we’re doing our best to follow through even if it means forgoing any attempts at relaxation.

For many writers, our work is tied into our sense of self-worth, so there’s this feeling that if the writing isn’t going well (and the writing-related accolades aren’t coming in), we’re not proving our value, and the drive to work harder and harder kicks in, as we hope that a future achievement will help us feel better about ourselves.

Even if we do attempt to relax, most writers will admit to “thinking about” the tasks they have yet to complete during that supposed relaxation time. We’re not really relaxing, we’re just trying to relax but still stressing over what we have to get done.

Then there’s the fact that many of us have simply never learned what it’s like to truly relax. We’ve been engaged in our busy lives for so long that the constant go-go-go mentality has become addictive, and when we’re faced with an opening where we might be able to relax, we reject it, thinking we’d be bored or wasting our time.

Finally, there is a misconception among many of us about what relaxing activities really are. Some imagine that lying around on a Saturday afternoon doing nothing is relaxing, or that binge-watching a television show will help restore us, but usually, these activities don’t leave us feeling more relaxed, motivated, and happy. On the contrary.

According to a 2014 study, watching television or playing video games after work didn’t lead to a relaxed, refreshed individual. Instead, it spawned feelings of guilt and failure and was depleting more than restoring.

5 Truly Relaxing Activities to Help Restore and Refresh Writers

Faced with all these obstacles, how is a writer to truly relax?

First, let’s define what true relaxation really is. According to the dictionary, relaxation is the “state of being free from tension and anxiety.” If you’ve ever continued to worry about your writing, work, or family while watching television, you’ve experienced a relaxing activity that wasn’t all that relaxing.

“Relaxation isn’t only about peace of mind or enjoying a hobby,” says the Mayo Clinic. “Relaxation is a process that decreases the effects of stress on your mind and body.”

The relaxation response is the opposite of the stress response. During a truly relaxing activity, muscle tension decreases, blood pressure goes down, the mind becomes calm, and the harmful effects of prolonged stress are diminished.

Writers also need their relaxation periods to restore them emotionally. We give a lot of mental and emotional energy to our writing, and without refilling the well, we will struggle to continue to create.

Considering these parameters, the following five activities are some of the most relaxing you can do. I encourage you to be sure you’re doing one or more of them each week, and welcome any other suggestions!

1. Take a walk in nature.

This one is good for you for many reasons. It provides an easy method of exercise, gets the blood circulating to your brain (which is good for your thinking ability), and as long as you walk somewhere green, it helps reduce stress and promote relaxation.

According to Harvard Health, regular aerobic exercise “will bring remarkable changes to your body, your metabolism, your heart, and your spirits. It has a unique capacity to exhilarate and relax, to provide stimulation and calm, to counter depression and dissipate stress.”

According to a 2017 study, natural environments promote relaxation and well being, with the sounds of nature positively affecting the brain and the nervous system, promoting true relaxation.

The real sounds of nature, by the way, worked much better on the brain than simple nature “sounds” played by a recording. Artificially produced sounds tended to lead to anxiety rather than relaxation. There’s nothing like the real thing!

Just 20 minutes may be all you need. Researchers reported in 2019 that taking 20 minutes to stroll in nature significantly lowered stress hormone levels. If you can get 30 minutes, even better—results showed the greatest drop in the stress hormone cortisol for that time period.

2. Read a book.

This one will be a welcome suggestion for most writers! Studies have shown that reading can reduce stress and promote relaxation—reducing stress by more than two-thirds after just six minutes of reading, according to one study! Researchers also found that it calmed frazzled nerves more than listening to music or settling down for a cup of tea (though these are also good relaxation options).

The reason reading works so well may be because it does what researchers say relaxation needs to do—engage a different part of the brain. When we say we want to relax, we often think about “turning the brain off,” but scientists say that’s rather impossible. The brain is always “on,” even when we’re sleeping, so the best way to promote relaxation is to switch gears.

When you’re reading, your brain concentrates on the words in front of you, using a different compartment than when you’re watching TV or working, and luring you away from thoughts of worry and anxiety. Keep your favorite books nearby at all times!

3. Get away.

Americans don’t get away as much as we should. There are all kinds of reasons why, from how tough it can be to leave work to the overwork that awaits us when we get back, but the bottom line is that we can learn how to manage it better, and the effects are well worth it, particularly for writers.

If you get away even for a few days, take a break from social media, and put some distance between you and your regular routine, you’ll be able to see things from a new perspective. Not only will the experience be relaxing (as long as you don’t overschedule yourself!), but you’ll probably come up with ideas for how to more efficiently run your writing life when you return.

Even just scheduling a vacation can make a world of difference. According to one study, participants experienced two months worth of happiness in anticipation of their time away.

4. Pick up a new hobby.

When was the last time you did something just for fun? Something like learning to play an instrument, climb a mountain, or ride a motorcycle?

Scientists have found that engaging in hobbies improves health, relieves stress, inspires creativity, and promotes relaxation. It also opens up new opportunities for socialization and gives you some work-free, responsibility-free time in your schedule.

Yet writers often become “too busy” for their hobbies. It’s time to change that!

“Research shows that people with hobbies are less likely to suffer from stress, low mood, and depression,” says the Australian Department of Health. Knitting, as one example, has been linked in studies to relieving stress, reducing anxiety, encouraging calm, and even helping ease chronic pain.

Other hobbies linked with health benefits include golf, gardening, playing musical instruments, and any hobby involving exercise (hiking, dancing, sports, etc.), to name only a few.

5. Stop setting goals.

Goal setting is usually linked with success. And we writers want to be successful.

But sometimes, we get so caught up in our goals that we forget to step back and relax. We feel constantly under the gun to reach the deadlines we’ve set for ourselves, which can lead to chronic feelings of anxiety.

If you’re particularly overwhelmed right now, or if you’ve just achieved one of the goals you set for yourself (finished a book, redesigned your website, gone through a book launch), it can be a big relief to just say, “You know what, I’m not setting any new goals for a while.”

I don’t advocate going with this strategy forever, as goals do inspire us toward action, but if you’re a driven person and you want to relax, feel free to take a vacation from goal setting until you feel ready to go after it again.

What methods do you use to truly relax?

Allianz Travel. (2015, August 14). 2015 Vacation Confidence Index Shows More Americans Haven’t Taken a Vacation. Retrieved from https://www.allianztravelinsurance.com/about/press/2015/aga-vci-no-vacation-past-year.htm

Ashford, K. (2015, August 20). Americans Feel Guilty On Vacation — For Relaxing. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/kateashford/2015/08/20/relax-on-vacation/#675d78ac50c0

The Des Moines Register from Des Moines, Iowa on August 15, 1985 · Page 15. (1985, August 15). Retrieved from https://www.newspapers.com/newspage/127940155/

Gould van Praag, C. D., Garfinkel, S. N., Sparasci, O., Mees, A., Philippides, A. O., Ware, M., … Critchley, H. D. (2017). Mind-wandering and alterations to default mode network connectivity when listening to naturalistic versus artificial sounds. Scientific Reports, 7(1). doi:10.1038/srep45273

Hamermesh, D. S., & Stancanelli, E. (2014, September 5). Long Workweeks and Strange Hours. Retrieved from https://www.nber.org/papers/w20449

Harvard Health Publishing. (2018, July 13). Exercising to relax. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/exercising-to-relax

Hobbies. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://headtohealth.gov.au/meaningful-life/purposeful-activity/hobbies

Hunter, M. R., Gillespie, B. W., & Chen, S. Y. (2019). Urban Nature Experiences Reduce Stress in the Context of Daily Life Based on Salivary Biomarkers. Frontiers in Psychology, 10. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00722

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2017, April 19). Relaxation techniques: Try these steps to reduce stress. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/relaxation-technique/art-20045368

Mental Health America. (2019, January 18). The Mental Health Benefits of Knitting. Retrieved from https://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/blog/mental-health-benefits-knitting

Parker-Pope, T. (2010, February 18). How Vacations Affect Your Happiness. Retrieved from https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/18/how-vacations-affect-your-happiness/

Reinecke, L., Hartmann, T., & Eden, A. (2014). The Guilty Couch Potato: The Role of Ego Depletion in Reducing Recovery Through Media Use. Journal of Communication, 64(4), 569-589. doi:10.1111/jcom.12107

The Telegraph. (2009, March 30). Reading ‘can help reduce stress’. Retrieved from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/5070874/Reading-can-help-reduce-stress.html

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Comments (4)

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  1. Sandy Saks says:

    I am glad to know there is a designated day for Relaxation. Drowning in a study with 30 years of writing – I am learning (late learner) to step out of the roller coaster ride. I have just completed my Tai Chi which is high on the list of good. Mindfulness is a mandatory tool for me. Constant good self talk allows the curvy road of life to be managed!
    The 25 minute chunks of time with my timer is truly helpful – thanks Colleen. So much help but have to be accepting of it. I know I need to read more, and have 3 different genres on the go now!
    Thanks for the pearls of wisdom.
    Sandy Saks

    • Colleen says:

      That is a help, isn’t it? Helps remind us to do so anyway! Sounds like you’ve adopted a lot of great habits for the writing journey. You’re right—we have to be open to help and to changing as we need to for our own well being. Three genres! Good for you. Happy writing! :O)

  2. Once again, exactly what I needed to read right now. I’ve been busy setting up book signings, but I recently realized I also needed to make time for some time-outs: a hotel getaway and a camping trip with my husband. Walking in nature and reading books are also activities that I’ve been neglecting but have been trying to devote more time to lately.

    • Colleen says:

      Always happens around a book launch, Nan! Exciting but intense for sure. Wishing you some nice slow walks among the trees. :O)

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