Today, I’d like to welcome psychologist and self-help author Robert Duff for a chat about self-management and stress. Hi Robert, and thanks for joining us here! 🙂
What role do you feel creative expression plays in fostering mental health?
I think that it plays a very important role. I often see the world in a yin and yang sort of way – creation and destruction. Often when we are depressed or having other mental health issues, we have to go through a sort of grieving process and we have to allow the life we expected to have (free of these issues) to die. In my opinion, one of the most helpful things for overcoming a loss is to create something new. The definition of creative expression is pretty broad in my book. That could be creating physical art, writing something, or even just cultivating new friendships or hobbies.
Also, in almost every case, it is more helpful to engage in active coping rather than passive. Passive coping is basically things like sleeping more, eating more, or simply trying to wait out the pain. Active coping is when you actually do something positive for yourself. Expressing yourself creatively is massively helpful in fostering mental health because it allows you to foster an internal locus of control rather than just being mad at things that are out of your control. How amazing is it that you can intentionally engage in some activity that will actually affect your mental health for the better? For anyone with anxiety or depression, it’s often tempting to feel like you have no control, so creating things is a great way to prove yourself wrong.
What are some typical obstacles that might pop up for people when trying to reach a creative headspace?
Social media. Holy crap. There is this crazy phenomenon where people sit down and try to write and then they hit the slightest bit of writers block and instead of finding their own way to work through it, they immediately switch tabs or pull out their phones to check social media. This is so counterproductive. You are interrupting your thought process to refresh the same pages over and over. Even more than that, you are literally REWARDING yourself for procrastination.
Aside from that, perfectionism can definitely get in the way. Instead of letting the creative juices flow freely, people often feel like they are writing for an imaginary audience and judge their own performance while they are working, which can lead to a whole lot of self-editing when they should still be in exploration/inspiration mode.
The last thing I’ll mention is this personal myth that a lot of people have where they need to have their exact right circumstances. The right program on the computer, the right music, the right frame of mind, the right environmental circumstances, the right tea, the right slippers, and so on. These are illusory correlations. Maybe one of those things happened at the same time that you had a flash of inspiration once and now you feel like you can rekindle that spark by having these circumstances. When you get too wrapped up in this, you never get any work done because you are creating an external locus of control. You don’t have control over your own creativity. It’s a very romantic notion, but in my opinion, it’s kind of B.S.
Tell us a little bit about how creative work has benefitted your life, personally:
I’m not too artistic. My creative work usually comes in the form of writing my books, blogs, or creating new projects related to my brand. When I need to turn off my brain that usually comes in the form of video games or playing with my kiddo. Journaling is probably the closest thing to creative expression that I do regularly. I don’t journal all the time, but when I go through phases that I am feeling lost I typically journal every morning for as long as it takes to pull things back together.
What are some common mental/emotional responses to a large-scale cultural crisis?
Well, there are some obvious ones like panic, a sense of dread, and fear for the future.
In some cases (like lately) these are totally reasonable. When bad things happen, you are supposed to have a sense of anxiety. That’s just an evolutionary adaptation to try to keep you safe.
There is also a tendency to drop self-care and instead hyper-focus on the troubling aspects of the world. At any point in time, there are an infinite amount of awesome things and shitty things going on in the world, but we chose to bias our attention in a way that allows us to function in everyday life. When you are smacked in the face with something close to home or something that affects people that you care greatly about, it is often the case that your attentional bias shifts toward being obsessed with details of current events.
This can lead to a borderline compulsive level of attention to media. While it is important to be informed and participate actively in affecting change in the world, this is not what I’m talking about here. This is like self-flagellation because you don’t quite know what else to do in the moment.
Could you share a couple of easy ways to relieve cultural anxiety (to keep your creative/playful mind up and running)?
One thing you can do immediately is limit your exposure to social media and the news. Many people have an immediate gut reaction when I suggest this, but I encourage you to be a little more realistic and pragmatic. I absolutely believe that it is your responsibility to be well informed about current events and to even engage with other people regarding these topics.
However, checking the news every few minutes or even every hour does not help. Anxiety, both clinical and temporary, creates a false sense of urgency. Knowing that something happened the very instant that it occurred is not usually important. In fact, waiting a few hours actually usually helps to clarify the news and allow some of the more extreme reactions to settle a bit.
My advice is to have a few check-ins per day that are scheduled. Morning, afternoon, evening, and night work just fine. You will pick up on bits of information incidentally throughout the day as well, but you don’t need to be actively seeking it out aside from these scheduled times. I would also suggest unplugging from the world for at least an hour before bed. Put the phone away (don’t keep it in the bedroom), avoid social media and news, and focus on an activity that’s just for you. This will allow you to better transition into restful sleep. Even if you are a mega-active political warrior, you are going to suck at your activism if you are burned out and haven’t gotten any rest.
Back to scheduling, you could also schedule in creative time. When the world seems like it’s on fire, it can seem silly to engage in art or creative endeavors. However, it is important to actively take good care of yourself. So schedule in the time to do so. Create a list of creative activities that you would theoretically enjoy. When you hit your scheduled time, just pick one at random and go through the motions, even if you aren’t feeling inspired. Make it a habit and the feelings will catch up.