If you have followed my artistic journey for awhile, you may be aware of my struggle with depression and anxiety. Not long ago, I made a choice to be more open about my disorder to make life easier for others suffering in silence as I did for so long.
The connection between creativity and mental disorders is well-known, though causation is not fully understood. In other words, which came first, the chicken or the egg? Are artists and writers more prone to mental illness due to the long hours they spend working alone or the nature of creativity itself? Or are people drawn to art because of their condition, resulting in a higher than average rate of mental illness among creative people?
The good news is, though creativity may be the source, it can also be the cure! Here are all the things that I’ve found most useful in coping with depression because, in the end, a happy artist is a productive artist!
Artists with day jobs are at an advantage in this area. You may spend less time in the studio, but you are out in the world connecting with your colleagues, clients, bosses, and maybe even the public on a daily basis. If you don’t have a day job, find ways to volunteer. A volunteer gig has the added benefit of providing the good feelings you get when you help others. Even signing up for a class or meet-up is a good way to get out of the house and connect with other humans.
A word of caution: Connecting with other artists either through collaborations or networking opportunities is obviously both good for your career and good for staying connected. However, there’s something to be said for stepping away from work once in a while. Look for an activity that aligns with an interest outside of art, a book club or a gig volunteering at an animal shelter.
If nothing else, take a walk.
One of the most effective treatments for depression and other mood disorders is exercise. But when you are truly in the dumps, often the last thing you want to do is put on workout clothes and drag yourself through a gym workout. On those days, I will just walk out my front door and let me feet do the rest. That way, the only battle you have to fight is just that of putting one foot in front of the other. I guarantee that in a block or so, you will have the energy and motivation to keep walking!
Read this interesting article about walking in nature and the impact on ruminative thinking.
Be careful what you put in your body.
I have learned the hard way that caffeine, sugar, alcohol, and junk food all have an immediate and obvious impact on my mood. Caffeine gives me energy and focus in the morning, but too much and I’ll be riding a wave of anxiety for the rest of the day. Alcohol may calm me down after a stressful week, but will leave me singing the blues the next day. Simple carbs also tend to boost my mood in the short-term but are detrimental to my mood (and health) over the long haul.
The best thing is to drink coffee and alcohol only in moderation and to eat a balanced diet avoiding junk and processed foods if you can. To go further, a strategic use of tryptophan-rich foods and complex carbohydrates is a smart way to boost seratonin levels in the brain, according to some research.
Focus on the present
A tendency to ruminate — i.e. stay in your head space letting often negative thoughts replay over and over — is correlated to depression and anxiety. Take a break from your thoughts by bringing your attention to the present moment. Notice the world around you, the sounds you are hearing. If you are having a conversation with someone, really listen to what they have to say and observe their body language.
Learn to breathe
A lifetime of stress associated with modern living produces a unique and detrimental habit. Instead of breathing with our diaphragms like we did as babies, we breathe very shallowly in our chest. To reverse this, sit or lie comfortably with your hands on your belly. Take slow deep breaths and as you inhale, allow your belly to expand with the breath, then collapse on the exhale. Try counting as you do this – four breaths to inhale, two holding your breath, eight counts to exhale.
You will find that slow deep “belly breaths” will reverse the fight-or-flight response you feel when you are stressed or anxious. By manipulating your body’s respiratory system, you send a message to your nervous system that you are calm and happy and then you will find you DO feel calm and happy.
Be lifelong learner
Take a class. Read a book. Attend a lecture. Take lessons in something you always wanted to learn, a language, a sport, a musical instrument. Personally, I’m a voracious reader and, while I love mindless thrillers from time to time, I also try to challenge myself by reading more difficult novels like Infinite Jest, classics like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or nonfiction reads about unfamiliar subjects, such as Dead Wake by Erik Larson (to name a few).
Being a learner means your brain continues to be elastic into old age, meaning you have more neural pathways to depend on later when dementia and Alzheimer’s disease stalk many of us. It also means you can get a better perspective when things get tough in your own life, making you a more resilient person overall. Which leads me to my next point….
Learn to recognize when your illness is talking to you
The worst thing about depression and anxiety is that these disorders can trick you into thinking that your thoughts and reasoning are rational and reality-based. Ever notice that an unkind word or bad news seems much worse on some days than others? Does that bad news send you into an existential crisis about your purpose in life and whether you’ll ever be happy? That might be your depression talking, and not you. But what if it truly is devastating news? Keep reading….
Learn to recognize when your illness isn’t talking to you
On the other hand, you might actually be feeling real anger or grief about something in your life. Frustration with a relationship, sadness over a loss… If the emotion is real and has a legitimate basis, don’t try to stuff it down or dismiss it as part of your disorder. You may need to process it and understand it better. Psychic and emotional pain, like other types of pain, is a signal that something is wrong. Don’t ignore it.
Celebrate and use your creativity to cope and grow
We who have the gift of creative expression are the lucky ones, regardless of how “successful” we are as artists (however we choose to define that word). One of the most healing and grounding things you can do for yourself is to use your art as therapy.
I find it helpful to keep a separate portfolio and sketchbooks for this purpose. If you discover things you’d like to use in the art you want to show the world, great. Otherwise, keep it private and personal, just for you.
Lately, I feel like all the different strains of my work are coming together in new and exciting ways. I hope this is a sign that I am becoming a healthier and more integrated person. However, there are many sketches, drawings, and paintings that helped me to get past things but I’m not eager to show them to anyone. And that’s okay.
Ask for help
Last, but definitely not least, DO seek help. DO try medication. There are many different classes of drugs out there, many new ones with fewer side effects. DO find a qualified therapist. DO join a support group if there’s one near you. If not, join an online group. If you have minimal health insurance, there may be a low- or no-cost mental health clinic in your area.
There are obviously many things you can do on your own to take care of your mental health, but sometimes it’s just not enough. If you had a seizure or chest pains or a raging infection, you would go to the doctor, right? Why then would you not seek treatment for a disease that carries the same risk of death?
Not to put too fine a point on it.
So, that, my friends, is all the advice I have for you.
If you have any other suggestions or advice, please add it in the comments below!