6 ways to look after your mental health and enjoy the creative process more
If you Google ‘creativity’ and ‘mental health’, you’ll be spoilt for choice with articles explaining how a creative hobby can aid your wellbeing as a form of escapism. Well, yeah – we all know that. But to find information about how your creativity can lead to mental health difficulties and how to deal with them – these things take some digging.
Image via Emma Matthews, Unsplash
I’m talking about that feeling where you think you’re not actually that good at what you do and will eventually get found out (imposter syndrome). Or constantly editing and re-editing your work when you’ve done hardly anything because you want every last bit to be perfect (perfectionism). And one that I'm sure we've all experienced at some point – the fear of failure.
These are barriers that disrupt creative lives and even stop some people from creating at all. I’ve been there in the past with depression as a result of the pressure I put myself under with my writing, so I can honestly say that these are more than just self-indulgent, tormented artist struggles, as some may see them.
While I still wrangle with perfectionism in particular on a daily basis, I have a better idea of how to manage it (and myself) thanks to therapy, countless self-help books and the support of my amazing friends and family. Above all else, I’ve realised that creativity and positive mental health can exist together and I hope these tips can help you in some way.
1. Get to know fear – it’s coming along for the ride
According to Very Well Mind, ‘fear is a natural, powerful and primitive human emotion [that] alerts us to the presence of danger or the threat of harm, whether that danger is physical or psychological.’
However, like sadness, anger and jealousy, we’ve been taught that fear is inherently bad and should be suppressed. How does this manifest for creative types? We listen to the negative ‘you can’t do it' voice in our heads which has now been magnified, leading us to self-sabotage, procrastinate and give in to the perfectionist mentality. Imagine what we could do if we were able to worth with our fear, rather than against it.
This is something Elizabeth Gilbert discusses in her book Big Magic, a no-nonsense guide to living a fulfilled creative life beyond fear. Gilbert explains that if we want creativity in our lives, we need to make room for fear too. Because the less we fight our fear, the less it fights back. In one of my favourite quotes, Gilbert shows how we can make this possible: “You can believe that you are neither a slave to inspiration nor its master, but something far more interesting – its partner – and that the two of you are working together towards something intriguing and worthwhile.”
2. Create for the hell of it
Image via Kasturi Roy, Unsplash
Whether you’re a writer, artist, musician or crafter, it’s easy to get into the habit of creating for a set purpose. While it’s great to have an end goal to spur you on, it’s equally as amazing when you can create stuff just for fun.
The thing is, your work doesn’t have to go anywhere or even be seen by anyone. With this you have the freedom to do literally whatever you want. Seriously – go wild! You can experience the thrill of trying something new for the very first time and, even better, make mistakes in an environment where it doesn’t matter.
If you’re wondering where to start, why not try a 30-day challenge? There are loads on Instagram for everything from graphic design to yoga. If you’re a writer, I’d recommend journaling or free writing (I've just started doing Julia Cameron's Morning Pages). The main thing is that you’re able to experience the sheer joy of doing what you love for nobody but yourself.
3. Do something completely different
A walk. A nap. An at-home pamper session. Phone a friend. Don’t phone a friend. Watch your favourite film. Watch your cat climb the curtains. The point is – there’s no harm in taking a break and there are studies to prove it.
Psychologists from the University of British Columbia found that when we let our minds wander as we enter a relaxed state, activity in regions of the brain associated with problem-solving increases. They established that daydreaming is an important cognitive state that helps us unconsciously work through bigger issues in our lives.
Plus, who actually wants to be doing the same thing all of the time? Sometimes I feel like I'm not being productive if I'm not writing or working towards something, but it's that kind of mentality that can lead to burnout. The rational part of my brain knows I need to be kinder to myself and actually, there's no harm in recharging by mindlessly watching telly for a bit / putting my cat in front of the mirror trying to get her to recognise herself.
4. Use CBT to challenge your negative thoughts
Image via Content Pixie, Unsplash
I’m a big fan of CBT, which stands for cognitive-behavioural therapy. This is a common talking therapy designed to identify the unhelpful thoughts or beliefs that are holding you back, and alter them so you can achieve your goals.
I’ve had a few courses of CBT over the years and they've really helped me to discover my unconscious beliefs (e.g. my writing isn’t worthwhile unless it’s published in a book), and how they affected my behaviour (anxiety, procrastination, always feeling not good enough etc). I suppose you could say it’s helped me redefine what I think success in life really is.
The great thing about CBT is that there are so many widely accessible (and free!) resources and worksheets online, as well as cheap books in shops like The Works. So you don’t have to go to therapy, although if that's something you feel comfortable with, I highly recommend it. If you're new to CBT I'd start off by reading about it online and then have a go at filling out a Belief Driven Formulation sheet to see how your negative thoughts lead to different emotional, behavioural and physiological reactions.
5. Let go of perfection
This one’s a lot easier said than done but is arguably the most important way you can look after your mental health as a creative person. So much of perfectionism and the desire to produce groundbreaking work is a result of wanting to do yourself and your craft justice. However, the truth is that your work will never be perfect and the more pressure you put on yourself, the less you’ll enjoy it.
You’re only human and realistically, you’re not going to produce your best work 100% of the time, in the same way that a footballer won’t have his best match – every single match. The most important thing is that no matter what, you keep creating and avoid comparing yourself to others (a huge topic I'll cover in another blog).
Author Neil Gaiman explains this perfectly throughout his Masterclass course, The Art of Storytelling. He refers to the following quote from artist Chuck Jones:
“You have one million bad drawings in your pencil. Your job as an artist is to get them out so the good ones can follow.”
In other words, it’s ok to produce ‘bad’ work because your best will eventually shine through. And it will be so much more rewarding when it does.
6. Find your tribe
The wonderful Copywriter's Unite Birmingham community
In the moments when you’re staring at a blank page or trying to muster up an idea out of nowhere, you might feel like you’re alone in your struggles. But there are people out there who get it – because they’ve gone through the exact same thing. I always realise this when I attend writing workshops and hear almost everyone else in the room echo the same worries as me.
So, try to join a group of likeminded people. My favourite is the Copywriter's Unite community. Yours could be a book club, an Instagram foodie community, a life drawing class – anything! And if there isn’t a group for your creative pursuit – why not start one?
How do you cope with your mental health and creativity? Let me know in the comments below!
Disclaimer: While I talk openly about my mental health, this blog is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional advice. If you're concerned about your mental health, speak to your GP or local Mind charity.