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Chronic Depression and Creativity

Chronic Depression and Creativity published on 31 Comments on Chronic Depression and Creativity

As some of you know, I struggle with chronic depression. I’ve been seeing a therapist for over five years now, and it’s helped a lot, but depression is not really something you can “just get over.” It’s more like a permanent wound that you learn how to mitigate and survive. Being a creative person with depression has its own hurdles, as many of the routine tasks of making art can be appropriated by depression and used to reinforce a negative core belief. Today I want to talk a little bit about how that manifests for me, and some things I try to keep in mind that have been helpful, in hopes that others may benefit from it. It’s easy to feel isolated and alone when depressed, as though no one else experiences these kinds of things and feeling depression is a weakness of character. Neither of those things are true. We are survivors. The only reason we’re still here is because we are strong.

A Negative Core Belief & The Arts

What is a negative core belief? Well…most people that I’ve met perceive themselves in some positive light. They believe that they are, at their core, a good person. A positive core belief. Having a negative core means that at best, I perceive myself as a bad person. At worst, I perceive my own identity as an aching sensation of broken emptiness. When in a depressive low, the perspective is narrowed and exaggerated to reinforce that belief.

To improve as an artist, it’s important to identify areas for improvement, accept feedback, and learn to express the truth of our own experiences as much as possible. What depression will do is take these activities and twist them. Aspects that need improvement become to my mind evidence of incompetence, laziness, and stupidity. Furthermore, I will feel these flaws are unchangeable and eternal. Not because I am incapable, but because there is something wrong and broken about me that prevents me from ever being good enough to realize my potential. That if I wasn’t so weak and pathetic, everything I want for myself would be instantly achieved. Outside criticism only reaffirms this belief, and instead of being able to utilize useful and specific critique, I will fixate on vague comments that my mind can twist to feed that negative core belief. A comment like, “The style isn’t very pro,” can get blown out of proportion to the point that my mind takes it as evidence that my ambition will always out-strip my talent, and that everything I attempt will end in failure.

Sometimes depression can even block the creation of art, because the emotion I’m trying to access is triggering. As a result, I encounter blocks due to the stress, lethargy, and despair depression brings on. This makes me feel as though I’m taking too long, that I’m not working hard enough, and I will blame myself for my lack of progress. This in turn only increases the difficulty in getting the work done. It’s a nasty cycle. However, it is not a cycle that is impossible to change.

Strategies to Cultivate


Developing coping strategies is a constant effort. Many have cumulative, rather than instant, impact. Which means that the first time many of them are attempted, they may not have any clear effect at all. However, I have found that slowly, piece by piece, these strategies have contributed to the emergence of a small, but ever growing, positive core. It has not replaced the negative core belief, but rather stands next to it as a contrast. Having it there has changed how I experience and endure depressive episodes.

1. Respecting the Necessity of Time and the Inevitability of Change
Being depressed often feels like being suspended in an eternal, stagnant, hopeless moment. If I’m not successful NOW, I feel as though I never will be. I remind myself that art, life, and learning are all a process, not an end goal. That mistakes and setbacks are inevitable when attempting anything, as that is a major part of how humans learn. If anything, a mistake is something to celebrate, as it indicates that I am DOING something and trying something new. Which means I’m cultivating a new skill, and will get better, given time and practice. No “Now” is permanent. No day lasts forever. Nothing will remain unchanged.

2. Compassion and Self Care – How would you treat a friend?
When I’m down, I often put my own needs at the bottom of my list of priorities. Eating, sleeping, hygiene. If I feel like I’m not a person, then what need is there to take care of me? Am I worthy of such kind treatment, of a soft bed, of a meal, or a hot shower? Except, as common sense tells us, it’s really hard to feel good about anything at all when you’re tired, hungry, and your own odor repels you. Add to that all the depression voices constantly berating me, and it becomes a very ugly picture. I’ve learned to ask myself, “If a friend was feeling the way I feel, how would I treat them?” Then I try to treat myself as though I were that imagined friend in need. (Hint: It usually involves a lot more sleep and soup, and a lot less tirades on what a horrible disappointment I am.)

3. Becoming an Investigator
Depressive lows are not states of mind that can be solved with a forced smile, thinking happy thoughts, finding silver linings, or employing distractions. Sometimes the best that can be done is to just ride the wave until the mood has run its course. However, that does not mean I have to be helpless. Attempting to force happiness creates a situation where I am at war with myself, and often prolongs the depressive low. Becoming a neutral observer, on the other hand, provides me useful information for next time without interfering with, repressing, or invalidating my present experience. I try to trace back to what triggered a mood and observe patterns of thoughts and behaviors. Sometimes I might reflect on past situations and find connections. Or perhaps I’ll evaluate if there are any physical symptoms of the mood, depression “Tells,” that might help me identify triggering incidents in the future. All of it is useful information for developing future strategies and helps cultivate a self-aware mindset. I have found that becoming an Investigator of my own depression has been one of the most effective tools in transforming it. I can now often recognize when I’m going to have a low in advance. In some cases, mitigate it or prevent it all together. When I am in a low, I’m better able to articulate how I’m feeling and communicate to loved ones what I need. I can often separate thoughts that are based on the negative-core-belief from the realities of a situation, giving me valuable perspective that makes it easier to take care of myself despite a major low. And no matter how bad it gets, when I can remember to act as an Investigator, it makes it feel as though even that horrible experience has value. That I’m still learning something. It gives the process a meaning and purpose, where otherwise there would be only emptiness.

I hope that some of these strategies are helpful to any readers that also struggle with depression. You’re not alone. I know that my experience is likely different than yours, and that what works for me may not be the same as what works for you, but we do share some common experiences. You’re a good person. WE are good people. Hopefully one day we can both believe that, in our core.

31 Comments

Children visit this site. Moderate your language accordingly.

I was born with constant, debilitating depression — never knew anything different. As a small child, I envisioned that there was a “leaking faucet” in my brain that was constantly dripping sadness into my mind.

To survive in society, I learned to cope & conceal my inner pain. I didn’t get any help because I never found anyone who actually believed my story.

A few years ago, I had a series of surgeries (unrelated to depression) and after recovering, I realized that my depression was gone. My conclusion is that the anesthesia killed off those brain cells that were sending the bad signals.

Circumstances, events, forces — internal & external — and how we react to them: those are what shape us as human beings. It seems that here in “western culture” we don’t pay enough attention to that.

just babbling now — best of luck, kevin

First off, bravo for sharing this. I know for me simply letting people know of my depression was a great relief. I hope the same for you.

Second, you are one of the strongest, most intelligent persons I’ve ever met. I’m not gonna sit here and pretend a pep talk from me will help you, but you must know that NONE of those negatives things shown above are the true you… at least the true you I know. I don’t take sh*t from many people, but you’ve proven yourself to be an exception to that rule, and that’s because you’ve earned that right with me.

You can always count on me to be there to listen and lend a hand in anyway I can. Rock on, man… 🙂

I will continue to do my best to earn the right to give you sh*t about as many things as possible. 🙂

In all seriousness, you and the WA have felt more and more like family. Real family. Not the kind I was born into, but the kind that supports you when you need help, and tells things to you straight when they think you’re going off the rails. Thanks for showing me what a family is supposed to be like!

Your statement is brilliant. It describes the living experience of depression so well! And your artistry says it gently, carefully, slowly, as we scroll down. You are a great blessing to express this for others.

I’ve heard a (TED talk) researcher say that a certain section of the brain becomes hyperactive during depression, and he called it “section 25” (he was able to calm it with some sort of electrotherapy in some patients).

To me, Section 25 sounds like the name of a baaad precinct to have in the city of our brains–if we stumble in too often, we gotta get help so that we have a reliable getaway car waiting to take us to a section with a better number . . .

Anyway it helps me to think of it as my brain misfiring rather than my soul having anything to do with it . . . sure there is an ache, but I found a context where the negative self talk sounds out of place, and I willingly take my medicine . . . it did take a lot of years, though, to get over other people’s expectations.

Hey, screw other people’s notions of success–says the old crone ;D

Ma’am, little do you know… You are not alone… You’ve earned a life long reader from me. Only advice that ever seemed to work with me is “Just keep on keeping on.” Thank you for letting someone else know they are not alone. Many blessings.

I’ve had some similar experiences. I’ve been struggling with chronic anxiety for a few years now (brought on by external circumstances, but it didn’t go away when things got better). People close to me say that the strong association between my work and my self-concept, along with the very short timescales on which I judge myself, heavily contributes to my difficulties (as in, if I have a bad day at work, I think poorly of myself, which feeds back into anxiety and poor work performance).

Just wanted to say, your post reminded me a lot of myself.

Feedback loops are nasty things. There’s so many behavior cycles that we go through. Some are good. And some are really destructive. The trick in many cases is replacing the destructive ones with progressively better habits. Of course, that’s easier said than done! But worth it, in the end, I think.

When I came today to see your comic, I found a mirror staring back at me. So many times I’ve said those words to myself, so many times have I been in this place. I have anxiety disorders and this is so familiar to me. How many times have I been told to just “get over it” and not exactly have known how. Thank you for posting this today!

I’m one of those “creative” types as well but way too chicken to ever act on them as you have. I want you to know how brave you are to post your comic, and ask for feedback after chapters, and also how much I love this story!

The thing that few people understand is that it’s not something that a person CAN “get over.” Any more than an old wound with severe scar tissue can be “overcome.” A person might have surgeries, years of physical therapy, and perhaps, after a very long time, regain most of the functionality. But their body will never quite be the same. That doesn’t mean healing isn’t worth pursuing. Just that it’s not something that can be “fixed” with a tiny bit of effort.

Those feedback pages are quite terrifying for me, but I started doing them in part because I was inspired by someone else who gave me courage, and in part because this environment is a relatively non-threatening place to practice “Becoming an Investigator.” It’s the same skill set, whether I’m examining depression or my own reaction to critique. Practice is what all skills need to get better. Creativity included.

I’ve never really known if I have an actual problem or whether it’s just the way I am, but when I have a bad spell I have a tendency to dread any social interaction for weeks afterwards. Getting any messages stresses me out because I’m afraid people expect information on me that I don’t want to report to them. I never know what really sets me off to begin with, but I reckon that if I could just make sure that I’ve got something new to report every day I won’t feel like a failure and can begin interacting with people afterwards.
I think it’s probably just a symptom of my tendency to hide when I get upset or feel inadequate, but it’s proved a bit of a pain to change so far! I just try to tell myself it’s a work in progress.

I think it’s really brave of you to have made this post, but I’m glad you did. Society has a tendency to force people into hiding their problems behind false smiles and I think that for someone suffering from depression this just leads to further isolation, widening the gap between how they are and ‘how they should be’. But to see that an intelligent, talented and bubbly person has troubles too and to note the huge disparity between how you view yourself and how other people see you, I think it’s helpful. First in helping to empower people to not hide their feelings and to show them that someone who feels similarly is just so wrong. Maybe their view of themselves is wrong too?

I’m really a bit dense when it comes to wording these things and I’m sorry if I’ve sounded insensitive. I just mean you’re brave, and it’s good for people to know that they’re not alone.

And for the record, your negative core’s opinions are wrong. GO HOME CORE, YOU’RE DRUNK.

I came late to this discussion–but wanted to say keep working on it. Many of us have depression, some not so severe and some crippling. I went through four or five years of problems, job and money related, that finally got better. (Walmart is bad in more ways than one.) I had an injury during that time and was on steroids, something that will make depression much worse, and my grandfather suddenly died during this time. I was never so glad to get off a medication as it actually pushed me closer to an irreversible action that would have impacted my childrens lives…you get the idea. It was a very dark time for me. I did get better, and much of it seemed to be stress related. I think going through menopause actually helped with it also (one of the pluses). It finally took many changes and realizing my kids and husband were the most important things in my life, and nothing else really mattered. They were the reason I got out of bed many days, some days the only reason.

I’m so glad you persevered and were able to get to a better place! That is wonderful! Congratulations on finding that core that kept you going, and having the strength to build on it.

While I don’t have much hope that I will ever completely escape my chronic depression, I have already seen that it is in my power to change how I experience it. I have a whole lifetime to discover the full extent of what that will mean. I’m hesitantly hopeful. 🙂

One thing to think about is your health. Lowered levels of some necessary vitamins can increase your depression, especially in women. The B vitmains are very important for us and we don’t always get enough. This is especially true for those in their childbearing years, which may explain why menopause helped me so much. Ain’t hormones fun!! I make sure to take a good daily vitamin with extra B and no iron (can’t tolerate it). I also found out I’ve had a low thyroid for years. Never showed up enough to be put on it by a doctor, but what a difference it made when I finally was. I finally have more energy and think a lot clearer. I know recent studies have shown many of have this condition, but don’t fall under guidelines for being prescribed it. I took the synthetic version for a couple of years and finally asked to be switched to natural, and the difference was noticeable within a few days!

This description sounds very familiar… Thanks for talking so freely. It… helps. Nothing helps, but this helps. ^_^; I don’t think I’m making sense, but…

Thanks for helping me feel like someone understands what’s happening in my head.

You’re very welcome. A large part of depression for me is hiding it. When I hide my actual feelings and bottle them up, they don’t go away. They just get turned in on me and attack me instead of becoming dispersed. So it’s become very important for me not to hide. And I’ve realized by sharing, I can help other people feel less alone. Because none of us are, even if it may feel that way.

As a longtime sufferer of chronic depression… you go girl! Keep on with it, and don’t let the depression get the boss of you.

I will say that one thing that works for me is to occasionally when depressed do something I know I’m good at or that I get enjoyment from, even if I don’t feel like it – play a favorite video game or read a good book. Nothing creative because depression sabotages that, though some grimdark writing drabble can sometimes be therapeutic. It’s been proven that doing things you usually enjoy can release endorphins to fight the depression chemicals in your brain! Petting animals helps too.

But don’t force it too hard. If you’re still not enjoying it, don’t force yourself to continue.

I keep a box of blueberry muffin mix in the pantry at all times for exactly that reason. It takes little effort, they turn out well, and I enjoy eating them. It makes me feel like I can do something well, even if I’m self-sabotaging other good feelings.

I suffer both anxiety and depression, and work in a place where I HAVE to have a smile on my face. My sister is dying of cancer, someone asked me how I was able to keep smiling with that going on, how I could be strong… I told them, I am Not strong, I am a clown, I put on my Corporate Suit and paint the smile on. No one here really knows me. It really took them back, because it is true. One thing that helps me is crafting, crochet or cross-stitch, I have donated a LOT of hats – my depression may say they are crap, but the Cancer and Geriatric wards at the hospital are always GLAD to have them.

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