It should be no surprise for anyone that there is a relationship between creativity and mental health. A relationship where the former suffers when the latter is down. Still, I bet you’ve seen a movie or two with a character who is scared of “getting cured” from their depression because they might lose their artistic abilities. Pals, it couldn’t be further from real life. What happened to Vincent van Gogh was not pretty and he legitimately suffered from his depressive episodes instead of being inspired by them. Even if you are not van Gogh, that trope harms real people and glorifies depression. Gross.
I am not talking about this because I’m a mental health professional but because I’m a creative who has struggled with various mental health issues through her entire life. Which means, of course, that my advice and insights are coming from a place of personal experience and caring about my fellow creatives. (Seriously guys I love you, keep up the good work.) So what kind of strategies do I have for staying creative while struggling with mental health issues?
You have to cut yourself some slack
You probably knew this, didn’t you? If you’re anything like me, you need reminding anyway. A lot.
Being tired and depressed might be a hindrance to your creativity, but you know what’s even worse? Berating yourself for not being and doing enough. It is the worst. Not only will you be wasting time doing that, but feeling terrible is just going to squish any morsels of creativity you can manage to find.
If you break your leg, you shouldn’t expect yourself to run. If you have a fever, you wouldn’t be planning a full day of work (I hope). Then why would you expect your mind to work perfectly when it’s being bogged down with whatever is ailing you? I know there are real-world expectations that may require you to act and create now because deadlines are a thing that exists (and don’t we all love the wooshing sound they make when they pass by) but beating yourself up for being creatively constipated won’t help.
If you find yourself staring at the blinking cursor on the screen instead of writing because your thoughts feel like they’re glued together and you can’t stop thinking about that time your teacher called your writing too dramatic, STOP. You are not fit for writing sprints or marathons, and you need to stop expecting yourself to be. Go play some Sims and try again later. And have a snack while you’re at it.
You need to have different expectations for your creative ideas and work
Speaking of expectations, you might need to change how you perceive your creativity. We all love big ideas and finishing a big creative work in one sitting, but you are missing out on a lot if you only accept those things as good enough.
Instead of coming up with the entire story arc for your next best-selling novel, you might think of a cool scene while you’re in the middle of your 40-minute depression shower. Instead of painting a masterpiece that depicts the dearest sceneries of your golden days of youth, you might scribble a funny stick figure comic on the bottom of a Chinese restaurant menu. Don’t judge yourself based on how much you get done – that’s capitalism talking. Any expression of your creativity is amazing.
When you’re going through a difficult episode with your mental health, it might limit your cognitive capabilities. In plain language: THINKING AND REMEMBERING IS HARD. Keep a little notepad where you write anything remotely creative you can think of, and then praise yourself later for whatever it is that you’ve managed to write down. If you get an idea, no matter how small, write that down too so you won’t forget.
Do the bare minimum
Making Spotify playlists doesn’t actually count as writing, but if it’s the best you can do, just do it. Do it and be happy with it. The same goes for finishing a single line of crochet, drawing nothing but a quick five-minute sketch and only looking at the pattern of the dress you were going to make.
Of course you want to do your best, but are you really doing it if you’re paralysed by your inability to do anything at all? Just do the tiny thing. I promise it’s enough right now. Whatever it is that you have to finish, you would do it one thing at a time regardless of how you’re feeling.
Don’t accept every critical thought in your head
In general it’s never a good idea to accept all our thoughts as facts. In fact, most of our thoughts are just regurgitated garbage consisting of our previous thoughts and other stuff we have heard or seen, so you have to be careful with what kind of thoughts you’re allowing to affect you.
When you’re not doing so well mentally, it’s so much easier to let all those negative ideas in and believe you really are as bad as you feared. Do not let that happen to you! You’re not garbage. You are capable of creating amazing things and learning even more and people don’t secretly think you suck. (Not all people will love everything you do, of course, and that’s okay. Just go see how many one-star ratings your favourite book has on Amazon or Goodreads, and then decide whether it’s a good idea to stop creating and get a full-time job at the pet store or not.)
If you’re finding yourself being overly critical, it might not be the best idea to work on editing your novel or anything similar until you get a grip of your negativity. At any time, any critique you have on your own work should be focused on what you can improve and how you can do it, and not just tearing down what you don’t like.
Creativity and mental health – which is more important?
This probably shouldn’t even be a question, but I wanted to bring this up in case it seemed like I only care about the creativity side of this equation. To use the same comparison as I did earlier, you wouldn’t just focus on how to continue running after you’ve broken your leg, you would focus on healing as well. Don’t get hung up on being creative no matter what, work on your mental health, too.
Personally I have chronic mental health issues that I have learned to live with and I function fairly well in my everyday life. However, if you’re only recently starting to suffer from these issues and you’re really struggling, please look for professional help if that’s accessible to you. While I do have a degree in nursing, I am not your nurse, and you deserve to receive real help.
With that out of the way, here are some actionable tips for making all this work.
Give yourself time to do nothing
I know, the thought makes me shudder as well, but sometimes you just gotta do it. When we’re getting very little done because of our mental health, it’s tempting to spend all your time trying to get at least something done. But you know what, it’s not going to help and you are only going to suffer further.
Creativity loves boredom. Even if I, a person with ADHD, love to avoid boredom as much as possible, I know it’s often necessary. There is no room for new ideas if you feed your brain with constant outside stimulation. Your brain also needs rest from working all the time and you need space to deal with your feelings, no matter how unpleasant they might be. Working on something or learning stuff all the time is a great way to avoid your feelings, which will only help them fester inside of you. Is that really what you want? Because it sounds icky.
I know some of us live in impenetrable concrete jungles and I know I’m really privileged to be able to see forest when I look out the window (assuming I don’t have the curtains closed like normally). Still, you should go outside.
Being out there in the nature is good for your creativity and mental health alike, and it’s especially good if you’re struggling with constant negative thoughts. You’ll get so much more space in your brain for creative thinking!
If you don’t quite know what to do outside, I’ve got some tips in my post about finding adventure where you are, and Emily from Thrive & Flourish has a lovely post on how spending time outdoors can improve your mental health.
Don’t neglect your body, either
As much as we creatives love to live inside our heads, we can’t ignore the rest of our bodies. I know, living in human form is very inconvenient, but it comes with responsibilities.
Assuming you don’t have several conditions that require daily taking care of, your health isn’t a complicated matter. You don’t need a fancy workout routine, a detailed meal plan or a bucketful of supplements even if many of us do enjoy those things. I love fancy workout routines! But the core of taking care of yourself is this: enough sleep, enough movement that makes you happy, enough nutritious food. Drinking something other than coffee probably fits somewhere there too, I’ve heard.
If you want to make space for creativity and mental health, you need to take charge of your physical health to the extent that you can. Getting up and stretching and going to bed early are probably not cool and sexy, but neither is chronic fatigue or getting a cramp in your back. I would know.
Try a new creative activity JUST FOR FUN
I know I’ve been going on about how mental health affects your creativity, but you should know doing creative things can also help improve your mental health. The thing is, if you only do creative stuff that you NEED TO do, like writing because you’re a writer or crocheting because you have an Etsy shop, those things will start to feel like nothing but work.
You don’t need to do something useful all the time. Not all your hobbies need to become a side hustle. Do something creative for fun every once in a while, because it’s good for you and you should get to enjoy things even when they’re not “profitable”. Check out my list of fun and mostly free creative activities if you need more ideas, and go and have yourself a good time!
My fellow creatives, do you have anything to add here? Leave a comment and I will update the post with your quote and a link!