When you get down to it, writers can be an exceptionally honest group when it comes to speaking frankly about their personal struggles. I’ve heard many writers—some of them close friends—open up about their struggles with mental health and illness. It runs the gamut from depression and anxiety, manic depression, bi-polar, schizophrenia, suicidal thoughts, and so much more (not to mention substance abuse that often goes along with or exacerbates these struggles). Writers talk about “dealing with their demons” or about how writing is how they explore the darker sides of themselves in safe ways. It’s there because it’s real and, for whatever reason, mental illnesses have been closely linked to creative occupations and pursuits.
Think about it on just a surface level, even. Writers spend much of their time constructing terribly broken, flawed, and hurting characters—often drawing on shards of personal experience or from their past dynamics and relationships. They then create stories full of tragedy and loss, of pain and suffering, where characters are constantly punished, emotionally shredded, and traumatized. While a reader can vicariously experience those things, they have to be processed through the writer’s heart and mind first before they come to life on the page.
That’s going to leave a mark, even if nothing was terribly imbalanced in the first place.
In the interest of honesty, I’ll speak to my own struggles. For years, I’ve fought through varying degrees of depression and anxiety…an intertwined dynamic that can really stick me in a deep pit for days and weeks at a time and which has led to me dealing with some unhealthy coping mechanisms. Counseling as well as the support of loved ones have been instrumental in steadying me through these times and helped equip me with a variety of tools to work on my issues.
One of those tools? Exercise. Seriously, it’s one of the best outlets I’ve found when I’m threatened by that mental and emotional morass. It’s also a reminder that I care about myself enough to fight through tough times.
Of course, the catch is I have to motivate myself to get moving when I’m in a mood where I’d rather do nothing but sulk (or jitter) in a corner. Those times I have gotten up for even a short, mild workout, I can notice the difference. No, I’m hardly going to laud it as any sort of replacement for therapy or prescriptions if those steps are needed. But adding exercise to your routine is one more way to set your path on a positive path and give yourself more strength and confidence to face your struggles head-on. Let me highlight major benefits of exercise in the context of mental health:
- Stress Reduction – Research has indicated that exercise increases production of the neurochemicals that help your brain respond to stress better. Plus when you put your body under physical stress in exercise, it learns to adapt and handle general stress better overall.
- Confidence Boosting – Struggling with self-esteem or poor self-image? Even small accomplishments in exercise can help remind you that you’re capable of consistent, long-term change and growth. Seeing the results of applied effort (weight loss, increased strength, finishing a race, etc.) can be enlightening as to your true potential and capabilities.
- Brain Function – Exercise isn’t any sort of cure for brain degeneration or possible dementia as we age, but it can help defend against it and help retain memory and cognitive function longer. There are also studies suggesting exercise boosts current brain performance.
- Better Relaxation & Rest – Exercise can help you sleep better, a key element for anyone who needs the energy to deal with daily responsibilities to keep them from piling up and making a tough situation worse.
- Alternate Investment – When people struggle with mental illness, they can often begin to invest in various coping mechanisms for soothing or “taking the edge off” whatever they’re going through. That can lead down a lot of troubling paths and abuses of many sorts. Exercise offers a safer place for people to invest their time and energy while experiencing healthy returns. (At the same time, yes, an obsession with fitness, body image, and so on can be problematic in itself, leading to unhealthy workout extremes and eating disorders. Remember, all things in moderation.)
What’s your story when it comes to mental health? Is writing one of the ways you try to smooth down some of your more ragged edges? Has exercise become a tool for improving your mental well-being? Another form of ammunition in your fight against the issues trying to drag you down?