15 May 2018

Why Writing Can Be Good AND Bad for Mental Health

My mental health is better when I’m writing.  But also I write more when I’m feeling mentally healthy.  It’s a chicken and egg situation and I definitely don’t know which comes first.  But the bottom line is that writing is a good sign!!

How is writing good for my mental health?

I’m generally happy when I’m writing. Exploring amazing worlds, hanging out with fantastic characters, having incredible adventures.  What’s not to like?!

I can write about things I love. Like space 🙂

I can visit fabulous interesting places in the name of research or writing retreats (yes, I’m looking at you, Gladstone’s Library!).

I can use all my experiences, especially the bad ones. It makes me feel like I’m doing something positive and beneficial with them.  I particularly enjoy naming my antagonists after people who have been toxic in my life (not very gracious, but very therapeutic, lol). 

When I suffered from a significant bout of depression a few years ago I made copious notes on how I felt – mentally and physically – and will be using that when Celeste goes through a similar situation in book 3 of my Space Opera.  When I feel low or hurt or confused, I often record those feelings for future use. 

A close relative has been diagnosed recently with cancer and part of my processing of that is a poem that’s currently brewing in my head.  It’ll probably be terrible coz I’m no poet, but that’s not the point.  Creative expression, no matter how “good” it is, can be super helpful in helping us to think things through and deal with difficult emotions.

Knowing you’re not alone. Many many writers have suffered from mental health issues.  One of my favourite books, “The Humans” by Matt Haig, originated in the depths of his “personal hell”:

I first had the idea of writing this story in 2000, when I was in the grip of panic disorder.  Back then, human life felt as strange for me as it does for the unnamed narrator.”

Despite (or perhaps because of) its origins, it’s a wonderful, funny, life-affirming story.  Writing about mental health issues doesn’t mean a story is depressing.  Often they’re about finding hope and a way through the difficulties and the darkness.

How is writing bad for my mental health?

“What-if?” thinking. Writers have to think in these terms – it’s essential to extrapolate all potential options and outcomes from each point in a story.  Exploring the full range of those inevitably includes the worst case scenarios.  That thinking easily carries over into our everyday personal lives. 

Sad or traumatic parts of my story. The emotions I create and feel when writing these sections can linger even when I’ve stopped writing for the day, keeping my mood low.

Rejections.  Even if you are toughening up or embracing them as part of #100Rejections (blog post to come!), they still hurt.  Sometimes just a pinprick, other times a knife to the heart.  As I mentioned in my last post, the publishing industry is tough and although you need talent and perseverance, there’s also a big pinch of luck involved in getting a book published.  That lack of control – no matter how great a story you write – can easily have a negative impact on mental health.

The inner critic. It is vicious, vindictive and not ashamed to kick a writer when they’re down. If you’re already feeling low about your work or your ability, it seems to start shouting abuse all the louder.  It can leave you feeling like the biggest loser in the history of the world.

What can help?

Friends. Plenty of people pay lip service to “here if you need me”, but the friends to value and hold on to are ones who say “what’s up?” or “let’s go for coffee/cake/cocktails”.  Just to be listened to by someone who cares enough to give you their time and attention is immensely powerful.  Words of wisdom are an additional bonus.  Distraction and laughs can also be more than enough. Writing friends have the added bonus of understanding and sharing writing struggles – they are your cheerleaders and perfectly placed to counteract the inner critic’s accusations.

Walking. Being out in nature full-stop is incredibly refreshing and perspective balancing, but for writers there’s a whole extra benefit.  It provides the time and space for the practice of attention restoration theory or unconscious thought theory (can you tell I’ve been reading about this recently?!).  Basically it means that walking in the woods can give you ideas and inspiration, as well as help your unconscious mind sort out plot problems, etc.

Reading! The awesome thing about being a writer is that reading counts towards 10,000 Hours To Expert.  Reading is the best escape there is!  And if you choose the right book then, when you emerge from it, you might also feel better equipped to deal with the real world.

Keeping on writing! We must love it, otherwise we wouldn’t keep doing it.  Forget the agent, forget the publisher, forget the reader even.  Write for yourself!  Write from your heart and enjoy every word as much as you possibly can.



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