Years ago, I was asked a very simple question:
“If you were in a plane that was in trouble, would you apply your oxygen mask first, or the mask to the child beside you?”
Of course I answered “the child!”
The better answer is fit your own mask first.
Unconscious or struggling to breathe, you are of no help to anyone, least of all the child you are trying to protect. It’s this simple question that informs my thinking when it comes to my career as a writer and looking after my mental health.
Writers suck at fitting their masks
Many of us work to hectic deadlines and take on the stress of a freelance career forget how important maintaining mental health and taking time out truly is. How many times have you heard of fellow writers and freelancers working through weekends, eating junk food and chasing down work at all costs?
Heck, some of us even joke about not finding the time to get up from the desk to pee, let alone take a proper break. That’s not stoicism. It’s crazy talk.
Here are 3 reasons WHY you need to make your mental health a priority if you are going to survive as a writer.
1.Depression breeds in isolation
Andrew Solomon’s tender, personal account of his struggle with depression doesn’t simply give lessons to those of us who find the black dog nipping at our heels. It has lessons for those of us who don’t want to meet the black dog as well. With mirth he talks of an indigenous culture asking Western counsellors to leave because they took depression sufferers indoors, out of the sunshine, to sit still in isolation and talk at length about their problems. Such behaviour on paper seems so counterintuitive to actually improving a person’s mental health and wellness. And it is.
It’s why writers have to be a little vigilant about time spent practising our craft.
The very nature of writing means we spend a lot of time thinking critically, working out meaning, and distilling that meaning over and over again until it makes sense on a page. As such, we spend an awful lot of time alone, pushing away human interaction and distractions, over thinking things to the enth degree. And that’s not healthy.
Even taking one day a month to work in a co-working centre, to brainstorm with a buddy and/or to challenge yourself with a situation like an un-conference or a group work session can help give you the spark you need to make you feel more connected. Seek out connections beyond you and the dog!
2. What we see isn’t always true
Have you ever played that game as a kid where your parents told you to count blue cars on the road? Did you notice for weeks, even months, after that family holiday trip you noticed a lot of blue cars? This is intersection frequency- and what it basically means is that if something is highlighted to us for any reason, we start seeing more and more of it.
The trouble here is we don’t notice the red cars or the white ones. We don’t see the blue car in relation to the bigger picture anymore. We just see a lot of blue. And the problem is it can have consequences.
For example, if you get two jobs as a writer in a row from problem clients, you’ll start noticing the problem clients. And the more you notice them, the more they become the focus of your endeavours. It can be even worse if you are struggling and then find others are struggling, too. Before you realise, you could slip right past intersection frequency into bias- and that bias can fuel your attitude, your terms and conditions, and even how you relate to new prospects.
Don’t design your business around problems. Take a step back and start looking at the whole picture. Note down the bad clients, but note the good experiences as well. Make a commitment to monitor the whole picture so you can remain focussed. If you are having a run of bad clients, work out why. Don’t accept it as your lot in life.
3. Burn out is real…and it’s crippling
There has been a lot of talk about whether burn out is simply your brain putting up resistance to what you do or whether it’s a sign your on the wrong track. It’s been pegged as boredom and being unengaged in your work. It’s a second cousin to stress, and often linked to overwork and not getting enough sleep. No matter the set of symptoms you are offered, burn out can turn even the most driven, vivacious and tenacious writer into a pyjama wearing, TV watching couch jockey if left unchecked.
Burn out is in essence working outside your true comfort zone for an extended period of time, without a net and with heightened anxiety. It means you are struggling with the work- whether that’s the volume, how much time it takes away from other things, or how blocked you get when faced with another one of those tasks. Your burn out is your body being exhausted by your anxiety, and as such, can lead to far greater problems if you are not careful.
The first step is to remember that you’re a human being who doesn’t have every minute in the day or every answer in the book. Stop putting yourself under so much pressure. The next step is to walk away, do something else, regroup and see what you can do about whatever is causing you pain.
Get organised. Re-write your TO DO list and only do the stuff that must be done. Clean out all the garbage and pick 2 or 3 things you can do to give you back some autonomy. Work like that for a while until you get your steam back.
Nobody has ever had “she was great at keeping deadlines” on their tombstone because frankly, while it’s nice, it’s hardly proof of a life well lived. Cut out the extraneous work and start planning your route back to a more reasonable and engaging work experience.
The bottom line:
As a writer, you’re only as good as your brain function. And brain function is impaired when we’re depressed, fixated on a problem or burnt out. You owe it to yourself to make sure your mental health is a priority because the quality and quantity of work you produce will be higher.
If you need some on the fly tips to help with the stress, check out my suggestions on how to take time out for you.
Fit your own mask, and you’ll be far more useful to anyone who needs your help. Don’t you agree?
Rebekah makes her living as marketing, content creation and copywriting freelancer, Unashamedly Creative). She is also the head of Disruption for women’s portal, Discordia Zine. Rebekah has just begun a mission to improve the mental health and wellness outcomes for freelancers and entrepreneurs as one half of the Hacking Happiness team. You can follow her journey via Twitter, Facebook and Google+.