I struggle with maintaining a regular creative practice. The reasons vary (fatigue, redirections, assumed responsibilities, and so on), and the underlying reasons for the reasons are complex (depression, lack of confidence, anxiety, and so on). And of course, when I get into hyper-critical self-assessment mode, I am selective when it comes to which creative accomplishments are actually valid.
After all, I’ve been creating high value podcasts and blog posts with consistency for nearly two months straight, haven’t I?
But then… I start to think about the unfinished-for-years short stories and novels… and the shadows start to creep in.
They got pretty dense recently, those shadows, so that’s my cue to figure out why, and remind myself of how I’ve dealt with it in the past.
I recently heard from a number of people in an online writers’ group that their number one creative challenge was anxiety and depression, so it’s my hope that sharing what works for me might help you, too.
Rituals, Habits, and Practices
If I’m honest with myself, the last time I consistently felt pretty good about myself — healthy, happy, and productive — was over a year ago, in the early summer of 2017.
Thinking back, I had some specific rituals, habits, and practices I employed that kept me feeling the most like myself and kept anxiety and depression at bay… but still allowed me to be open, empathic, and emotional.
Defining the Terms
Definitions for rituals, habits, and practices could overlap or feel interchangeable. Here’s how I think of them:
- Rituals are actions with an associated metaphoric and poetic meaning. Prayer is a ritual. Lighting a candle in the name of an intention is a ritual. Rubbing the belly of the Buddha for luck is a ritual.
- Habits are actions repeated so often as to be done nearly without thinking, or without conscious or directed effort. In this context, of course, we’re talking about positive habits. Brushing your teeth before bed is a habit.
- Practices are regular actions that strengthen or improve a particular skill feature.
For me, rituals, habits, and practices do, indeed, blend and overlap. We’ll get into that.
“Wherefore he sought to have that by practice, that he could not by prayer.” — Sir Philip Sidney
You Do You — No One Else Will Do
Rituals, habits, and practices — systems of meaningful and positive behavior — have great power against anxiety, depression, and their offspring, procrastination. But here’s something I’ve learned: no single solution is going to work perfectly for you.
You’ve got to figure out what you respond to… and I’ll tell you right now (as evidenced by the need for me to write this article), even if you do figure out what works for you, it might not work forever. Perhaps the most important practice is being self-aware, so you can recognize diminishing returns and adjust accordingly.
It’s important to actually know yourself, the good and the bad. To be as conscious of, and conscientious with, our mental health as we are regarding our physical health.
Brains, Body… Both!
When there’s something physically wrong with our bodies, we take appropriate action.
If you’re nearsighted, you don’t fumble around in the world pretending you can see just fine.
You put on some glasses.
If you have a broken arm, you sit out a few baseball games while you wear a cast, then a sling, and then probably get some physical therapy.
It’s important to treat our emotional health the same way, starting with understanding how it gets messed up in the first place.
If you’re experiencing a mental or emotional health issue… newsflash, friends: that’s also a physical health issue.
Sometimes — and this is a gross oversimplification, but roll with it — things get out of whack.
We know what to do for a broken arm. For nearsightedness. For a stiff neck.
We treat the problem. Often, we’re proactive about preventing the problem from happening again, or at least minimizing its effects if it does.
Similarly, there’s often something we can do for our anxiety, our depression, and the other situational or chronic emotional maladies that keep us from being productive creators.
Here’s where I throw in what should be obvious: I’m not offering medical advice. You should seek professional help for any mental illness. What works for me might not work for you.
That said: I know things go better for me when I engage in some particular rituals, habits, and practices.
What (Usually / Often) Works For Me, and Why
I know, usually, exactly how I wander off the emotionally healthy path, and I know what to do (and not do) to get back on it.
Most obvious for me: when I don’t eat right, my mood suffers. This is especially true if I have stuff with too much processed sugar or grains.
Here’s the science: processed and refined sugars and grains are inflammatories that have adverse effects on the gastrointestinal, immune, and neurological systems of human beings. Inflammation is an immunological defense mechanism that upsets a whole convoy of biological apple carts.
The trouble is, our brains (which often don’t know what’s good for us… ironic, no?) really, really love sugars, and foods (like grains) that convert easily into sugar in our bodies, because to our brains, it’s like we hit a gusher of metabolic energy and we’re all gonna be (metabolically speaking) rich!
So we crave it. Especially when we’re accustomed to getting it.
But sugar, especially, is also food for depression, anxiety, and even schizophenia.
And man, I feel it. If I succumb to a before-bed ice cream or graham crackers snack (not at the same time… I’m not a savage), the next morning I wake up horribly sluggish, with a stuffed up nose, physically sore, and (no wonder) emotionally glum. It’s a vicious circle, too: the physical lethargy triggers emotional lethargy; rinse, repeat.
So how do I make sure this temptation doesn’t send me straight to hell? #hyperbole #sortof
It’s not just enough to not have refined sugar or grains in the house. After all, there’s a convenience store, um… conveniently(?) just a three minute walk away.
I need to have alternatives readily at hand that scratch the same itch.
If I’m snacky, that means (for me) fruit like strawberries and blueberries, and dark chocolate (80% cacao or higher). Cashews are good, too.
I don’t really crave grains / breads… but stuff that includes dough, usually highly processed dough? That’s another matter. Hello, pizza, I’m looking at you! I go into eating pizza knowing that it’ll probably be okay unless I’ve already been otherwise off my dietary game. But I usually skip the crust. Pizza dough is a delivery system for cheese and other yummy horrible things, nothing more.
Maintaining a diet that’s good for my mental health is one of those things that’s both a practice and a habit.
If you’re accustomed to regularly consuming sugars and grains, cutting them out is likely going to be a challenge! Again, our brain loves the stuff! You’re going to have cravings… maybe for a week, maybe for two. You may even feel flu-like symptoms for a bit, but they will pass.
Once you get over the hump, though, you will likely experience a host of benefits, including improved focus, mood, sleep habits, and even (probably not surprising) weight loss. And as an added bonus, naturally sweet things like fruit will begin to taste sweeter!
You’ll need to adopt a dedicated practice at first… but as your body and mind begin to reap the benefits, eating a diet mostly free of refined sugars and grains will become a habit.
A couple of things worth mentioning about any dietary adjustments:
- After an initial detox period (Whole30 is popular for this), I don’t recommend trying to fanatically and completely eliminate sugar and grain from your diet. It’s not about denying yourself… it’s about treating yourself right, and knowing yourself. Make the occasional donut a deliberate choice, not a go-to immediate gratification junky fix, and you’ll be all right.
- Having said that… beware of backsliding hard during times of stress, or out of convenience. I know of which I speak! My belly fat testifies! Again: know yourself. Be cognizant!
Does this seem obvious?
Does that make it easier to actually exercise?
Probably not. Not for me, anyway.
Physical exercise does so much more than build strength and help you lose weight. Exercise measurably improves mood in the short term, and even helps alleviate long-term depression and anxiety.
The reasons are complicated, and I believe it has everything to do with the fact that we’re essentially omnivorous primates that evolved to hunt and gather in a relatively unstable and changing environment, including a semi-arid savanna / grassland.
We are optimized to exert ourselves both in short, intense bursts, and over extended periods of time. Humans might not be the fastest animal, but we can push our bodies to operate in an extreme state longer than pretty much any other land animal on the planet.
There are rewards for this, biochemically: we are good at catch prey because we can chase them until they literally die of exhaustion… and we can avoid becoming prey because we can run away long enough that we’re just not worth eating anymore.
Maybe this is, in part, why we feel a mood boost — a rush of endorphins, the “euphoria” brain chemical — when we exercise: the brain wants to reward behavior that keeps it alive.
Exercise also produces serotonin, which is directly related to initiative and willpower. That sounds like a great counter to anxiety and depression, two forces in our brains that work to drain our vitality.
“The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality…”— Andrew Solomon
Remember, though… your brain ultimately wants to do the thing that conserves energy and protects the safe, secure status quo. And your brain is stupid — it doesn’t know the difference between deliberate stress with a potentially positive outcome and no physical danger (like exercise, or facing a challenging interpersonal situation, or finishing a freakin’ blog post, darn it…) and, y’know, running like hell to get away from a lion in the tall grass.
So we have to push past our sneaky instincts. Because we can train our stupid brain.
There’s a happy positive feedback loop at work with exercise:
- You might not want to exercise because you’re feeling glum and not particularly inspired to do something that sounds like, well, work. That’s your serotonin-starved brain doing the talking.
- You tell your brain to shut up for once, and you go for a brisk walk around the block, or do some push-ups and squats in the living room.
- IT FEELS ALL RIGHT!
- In a few days, you decide you should try that again. Your brain, even though it’s really slow and would rather just sit soaking in warm cerebrospinal fluid getting all wrinkly (well, it’s already kinda wrinkly), remembers how it felt the last time you exercised. It wasn’t so bad… and this time, your brain doesn’t fight so hard to keep you on the couch.
- You walk a little farther, do a few more push-ups and squats than last time, or generally exercise a little longer / harder / more than last time.
- IT FEELS PRETTY GOOD! In fact, when you’re done, you think maybe you’ll take a look at that short story draft on your laptop!
- (repeat a few weeks)
- O hai, you’ve lost a little weight, you’re a little physically stronger, and you’ve been sleeping better. If you’re sleeping with someone, that’s been… better… lately. If you’re not sleeping with someone, it feels more like something you might do than it has in a long time. Oh, and you’re making stuff!
- Your brain doesn’t complain even a little bit when you wanna exercise. In fact, it nags you a little bit if you let too much time pass since you’ve exercised, because your brain is simple, and it likes the chemical candy you’ve been tossing into its mouth.
- GOOD THINGS.
I’ve gotten away from regular exercise myself. That’s, again, one of the reasons I’m writing this post… to hold myself accountable.
So right now, I took a break from writing this article and just did what used to be my preferred, regular routine: a round of body-weight calisthenics that include rotating sets of pushups, squats, pull-ups, and planks, all done “to failure” — in other words, until you absolutely cannot do another rep or hold the plank another second — and with about a minute break between each one. (My legs are wobbly.)
This practice of intense, brief exercise with periods of inactivity and measured, meditative breathing is a variety of interval training. Interval training improves fitness and builds muscle faster than “steady state” cardio where you’re doing essentially the same thing or maintaining the same challenge level over your entire workout. I like it because it mixes things up quickly… and I took to calisthenics because it doesn’t necessarily depend on any equipment, other people, going to a gym, or anything that could serve as procrastination fuel for my lazy-ass brain.
Also, if you’re going to be exercising regularly, don’t forget diet! Your metabolism is going to get faster and more efficient. It’s important that you keep it going with the proper fuel. That’s why I wrote about diet before I wrote about exercise.
It would take another thousand words, at least, to go deep on how diet and exercise co-mingle, so that’s not gonna happen here. Try here, for starters, instead.
Finally, as with diet, and, heck, anything involving your physical and mental health, do not trust me to be an authority. I’m here to share what I know and what I do… but you should do your own research and consult actual physical and mental health professionals so that you’re doing what’s best for you and your health.
Ritual, Metaphor, and Living Poetically
Body and mind are all “body,” one way or another, as I’ve mentioned. In the common vernacular, though, I recognize that both diet and exercise are two things we do with our bodies that have a positive effect on our emotions.
Let’s address ways of thinking that have a positive effect on our emotional health.
First, I gotta say that I have even less authority and expertise in this realm that I do when discussing diet and exercise. As always, I’m only going to talk about what works for me, and some of the reasons why. Your mileage may vary. You might find other things more effective.
My real goal here is to open you up to some useful behavioral tools that might help you build a healthy creative life.
So there’s a really funny skit from Inside Amy Schumer (video link, not safe for work) that pokes fun at the use of “the universe” as shorthand for a kind of quasi-divine instrument of, well, self-serving rationalization. As in, “I really love The Expanse and want it to come back next year, so I asked the universe, and Amazon Prime picked up the show after SciFi cancelled it!”
Thinking something entirely outside of your sphere of influence came to pass because you made, essentially, a wish, is probably some variety of narcissism, at best, and a tragically insecure attempt at establishing one’s sense of control over the world at worst.
We’ve already talked about how the brain is, at its (literal) root, kinda simple-minded (sorry…). It creates our moods (more specifically, our gastro-neurological system creates the chemicals that create our moods) based on stimuli both real and imagined with equal vigor. Watching a violent crisis on the news triggers the same reaction as being physically threatened.
Happily… this can work positively, too!
“The universe” isn’t really going to get you an apricot puggle. But through mental exercises like creative visualization, mindfulness meditation, and behavioral practices like deliberately fostering positive emotions like gratitude and compassion, you can adjust your attitude around the likelihood of your achieving a goal, which, in turn, can elevate your mood, making you more alert to opportunity and more energized to be pro-active when those opportunities present themselves.
To carry the puggle thing along… let’s say you want an apricot puggle, but you don’t have a big enough apartment for a pet. But you keep your eye on the prize. You believe you will eventually get that dog. You have confidence that you will get that dog.
Buoyed by this self-assertion, you work a little harder. You make more money. You can afford a bigger place. You get better hours at work. Until one day, almost as a secondary realization, you look around and think, “hey, I can totally get that apricot puggle I’ve always wanted.” And you do.
Compare this to going through life thinking, “I can never get an apricot puggle.” With a negative worldview, your initiative is diminished. Your tendency toward depression may grow. You don’t work as hard. You stay in the same dead-end job and never move to that bigger place. And yep, you never do get that apricot puggle.
I know, it’s a silly example (stolen from the Amy Schumer video). But I hope you see the point: the attitudes we adopt can, and do, have a direct impact on the life we live.
The form those mental attitudes take is a personal choice. Some folks find religion provides a powerful framework, with prayer, contemplation, and faith serving the purposes of positive emotional practice and creative visualization. Some go the purely scientific / humanist direction.
What matters is that each of us find an approach that works.
For me, I think of it as “living poetically.”
I know the science behind these techniques, and for a long time I got along eating the dry dog food of secular rationality, if you will.
But I was raised Roman Catholic, a tradition rich with ritual and symbolism. I have been a pagan, too… which makes sense, since Catholicism got much of its ritual and symbolism from the pagan belief systems it assimilated.
I like the poetic, metaphorical logic of sympathetic magic. Of signs and portents. Of talismans and objects of power. Of ritual.
I’m comfortable with it.
The forms it takes are personal to me and a very select few. But it works for me, especially when I keep it front of mind. When I make it a practice.
I don’t think I can ask the universe for an apricot puggle. But I do practice gratitude, and I do focus my intentions through meditation and sometimes impromptu ritual, often involving primitive archetypes and “what just feels right.”
I embrace convenient convergences when they happen — signs, omens, and portents, if you will — without literally believing that “the universe” is trying to tell me something. Rather, the act of staying open to metaphor and “poetry” helps me recognize connections I might not otherwise see.
The result is an outlook that helps me stay positive and optimistic, and keeps me open and available to opportunity.
How To Tie It All Together And Beat Back the Blues So You Can Make More Stuff More Often
I know what to do.
It’s no more or less difficult than eating right and exercising regularly. By practicing the deliberate perception of life as full of poetic metaphor and meaningful ritual, I will develop a habit of positive thought, which will make exercising and eating right more appealing because of a generally positive and energized attitude.
It’s a loop, the great worm Ouroboros, that archetype of wholeness and perpetuation.
I’ve seen it all work in my life.
The challenge is maintaining it all.
Each piece — diet, exercise, ritual / mindset — compliments another. Each helps keep the positive feedback loop going.
What’s important is to keep everything balanced. If it seems like that might be a difficult, remember: a tripod can be very stable so long as the object atop is centered… and the object atop stays centered by making sure each leg of the tripod is equidistant — each bearing an equal amount of the weight.
Everything works together.
That doesn’t mean you have to keep everything perfect all the time. That’s the kind of expectation that leads to failure… and it’s tempting to fall into accepting that expectation, because then your lazy, greedy, growth-adverse brain can go back to its old ways. You know where that gets you..!
No, rather than fretting that everything is perfect, look at it holistically: if you ate poorly for a few days, maybe focus a bit more energy on creative visualization and gratitude as you get your dietary practices back on-line. If you’ve been hit by a stretch of misfortune that makes it difficult to feel gratitude or compassion, bypass the temptation to drift into depression by exercising a little more.
And let’s not forget the one element that supercharges all the rest:
Make things for yourself, first and above all.
And as you do, count every little win: every new idea; every time you sit at the keyboard; every new melody you hum into the audio recorder on your phone; every sketch; every couplet.
Creativity is a ritual, a habit, a practice. It’s the Brave Thing that your dumb ol’ brain both thrives on and is terrified by.
All your other rituals, habits, and practices support your ability to make stuff.
So stay healthy, and stay positive. Follow the many, many links in this article to learn more about the things I’ve written about. Adopt what works for you, and go go go.
What Are Your Rituals, Habits, and Practices?
I’ve shared what works for me. How about you?
Let me know about your own healthy rituals, habits, and practices that help you maintain mental and physical health.
Or, if things aren’t working for you right now, tell me about that, too.
Together — me, you, and other readers — we can help each other figure this out.
This article and Sonitotum episode 004 compliment one another… you should check it out.