In this current lockdown situation, many people around the world, including many writers, are finding that staying at home is more stressful than they might have believed a month or so ago. ‘I’ll have loads of time to write my book!’ in many cases has become ‘Why do I feel as though I can’t do anything?’ as this mysterious limbo slips away, day by day. One important thing to keep in mind is that this particular situation in which we find ourselves can place an invisible stress upon the mind which saps energy and initiative. It’s not quite like a wartime scenario: there, the enemy is known and visible, or at least locatable geographically to some degree. It’s possible, in most war situations, to have some kind of downtime in which safety is more or less secure. But in our case, the enemy is invisible, unlocatable, and can be transmitted even by our friendliest neighbours at any time. That means that, to some degree, our defences are always ‘on’ — and that can be draining in the extreme.
Having said all of that, there are a few simple things to keep in mind that might help. I offer these suggestions based on personal experience.
1. Separate yourself out from the stress to some degree.
Both our own minds and the surrounding culture tend to push at us that we must plunge straight into the stress, we must ‘go under’. Anything less than this feels both physically and mentally impossible and counter-intuitive — surely, a problem exists and the only way to deal with any problem is to jump into it, to become it? The result of this immersive approach is a loss of perspective and sanity. We are caught up in the swirl, we sink into grief, helplessness, apathy, confusion. Our bodies and minds are wracked with anguish; we cry, we writhe, we despair.
Our culture suggests that this is the way. We must ‘go through’ this storm, somehow exhaust it. It holds that the answers to the stress lie hidden at its core.
Wrong. All that lies at the core is an unknown. It’s that unknown which creates the vortex which sucks us in in the first place. We don’t have to journey to the centre of the vortex to discover that there’s nothing there.
So forget about immersion as a valid method of dealing with stress. In some cases, yes, the emotional outpourings and insanities prompted at the core of an unknown eventually exhaust themselves temporarily, leaving the individual seemingly more able to see a way forward a little more clearly. But that is pretty much where most individuals would have started from in the first place — and the swirling core is still in the vicinity, building strength for another attempt at capturing our attention.
So what do we do?
Distance ourselves, if only a little. This can be as simple as closing one’s eyes and trying to recognise that we are separate from the chaos we are experiencing, even if only marginally. Look at the ‘stress’: the mere fact of putting a tiny bit of space between ourselves and ‘it’ can be tremendously therapeutic.
The answers to a problem normally lies outside the problem, not at its core.
2. Think creative thoughts — but don’t be surprised or disappointed if you can’t.
There isn’t going to be a lot of attention left over for creativity — being creative can burn a lot of energy, and most of that is being directed to the ‘shields’ right now, our defensive mental habits and anxieties.
But think: as writers, we spend a lot of time imagining our characters into dangerous, stressful situations and picturing how they feel and respond. Now, here we are, in a dangerous situation ourselves. We are living through a major historical event. While we won’t normally have the energy to write about it straight away, we can keep notes. Each fragment that we record could be the basis for a story later. Write things down, even if they don’t make sense; keep a Lockdown Diary for use as a resource later. Don’t worry about keeping it neat or up to date, just scribble stuff into it when the mood takes you. It might be invaluable once this is all over.
3. Be good to yourself.
Just my opinion — like all of this — but now is probably not the time to maintain that strict diet or adopt that regimented training routine you’ve been planning. Go easy on yourself: your mind is probably burning up more calories than you think. It’s crucial to maintain your basic health and well-being during this time — and more than that: it’s important to treat yourself well, even as indulgently as you can, to balance the apparency that the world doesn’t seem to be doing so at this point in time.
4. Sleep as much as possible.
Following on from the above, your body is burning up energy with anxiety. It probably needs about 20% more sleep than usual. If you’re having late nights because you can’t sleep, try to sleep in whenever you can, or take naps if possible.
5. Avoid bad news as much as possible.
Hard at the moment, I know — but one very useful piece of advice I’ve seen is to ‘unglue’ yourself from all these newsfeeds with their latest death statistics, and go and do something else. You can tell yourself that you will check up on the news twice a day and that’s that. It will wear down your resilience if you ‘try to stay up to date’ minute by minute. The main news stories don’t change that frequently, so the tendency for some is to go off the main news into all those side news stories of doom and gloom and extreme opinion, which just makes things worse. Your mental state is as important as your physical state, if not more so. So get off the doom treadmill and do something as bright and fresh as possible.
6. Exercise and walk to a limited degree.
‘Bright and fresh’ can include exercise. Whatever your local lockdown rules are, make the most of them. Get your attention out — something which may be even more important than exercising your body.
7. Eat well and take vitamins as needed.
This follows on from the above. Food options may be limited, but for most people food is plentiful.
If you’re struggling, try some of the above. Let me know how you go.