Friday, August 17, 2018

The Hidden Risks of Emotional Burnouts in Writing

By Lesley Vos, @LesleyVos

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Burning out happens to writers every day, and some of them don't even realize it--they just feel blocked or stuck, and don't know what to do about it. Lesley Vos visits the lecture hall today to share tips on what to do, and how to avoid, writers' burnout.

Lesley Vos is a seasoned web writer, content strategist, and blogger. She currently writes at, helping peers to discover the world of plagiarism-free content.

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Take it away Lesley...

No matter how much you love writing, it's still a job. One day you wake up and realize that you can't write anymore. Literally.

What's that? And what to do?

Like with any other job, you may get tired of writing. I know it firsthand because it's what happened to me six months ago. The day had come when the mere thought of necessity for sitting down and writing made me want to cry!

I am a web writer, blogging and freelancing for a living. Colleagues will understand my problem:

After all, it's not easy to surge with creative ideas, do research, craft appealing texts, and tinker with catching plots right along. All those content plans, essays, blog posts, and stories may be overwhelming, stressful, or even frustrating.

It's burnout, and I've fallen victim to it.

The Trickery of Writer Burnouts

At first thought, the word "burnout" speaks for itself, but it's not all that simple.

Despite dozens of articles on how not to burn out at work, many specialists still don't consider the burnout syndrome a distinct illness, calling it a form of depression. It's easiest to describe it as emotional fatigue followed by depersonalization because of stresses at work.

First used in 1970s, the word described emotional exhaustion of nurses and doctors. Today, more often than not, burnout refers to creative artists such as editors, producers, painters, musicians, and others.

Speaking of writers like you and me, here goes a catch:

We all heard of writer's block, didn't we? Oh, I know that you're thinking of that horrible feeling when you sit and try to write but...nothing comes out! Some call it a blank page syndrome and rightly so, but others misunderstand it to be a burnout, which is not quite the ticket.

Writer burnout is different.

Emotional burnouts in writing are when the mere look at your to-write list evokes stress. It's when your writing ideas flow, but you can't structurize them. It's when your head, eyes, and back hurt because of hours spent in front of a keyboard.

Writer burnout is not only about bad mood and failure to meet deadlines. It's a bunch of physical and mental symptoms, and ignoring them destroys our wellness on all hands.

Physical symptoms of writer burnout

Fatigue, frustration, insomnia, inability to turn a focus toward one text – who of us writers didn't experience this?

But my case was even worse:

Recognizing several symptoms at once and didn't feel rested no matter how hard I tried, I had realized it was time to ring the alarm.

Headaches, appetite loss, skin problems, and palpitations were my right partners. Put it to dizziness, weak immune system, chest and stomach pain, hair loss, and fainting – and you'll get the entire gamut of what happened to me.

Mental symptoms of writer burnout

Writers have two strikes against emotional burnout because of their strong feeling of empathy and, sometimes, the obsession to finish a project through thick and thin.

Writing under the influence of stress and strict deadlines, I violated a balance of my working capacity and, therefore, started experiencing mental problems such as:
  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Irritability
  • Memory problems
  • Depression
  • Loss of interest in writing

As far as you understand, all they have nothing to do with wellness, especially if it's a daily job requiring writing abilities and creativity non-stop.

Numbers speak volumes: up to 50% of employees give up their jobs because of emotional burnouts; and creative artists like you and me are those making the statistics.

What is more, male-female differences take place too. Thus, women feel emotionally exhausted when burning out, while men face depersonalization more often.

What to Do When Suffering From Writer Burnout

In a word, citing Julie Neidlinger, "writer burnout happens when you use up all of your creative reserves and become a machine." What could I do to mitigate hidden risks of emotional burnouts in writing and come out of this condition?

Therapists recommend avoiding stress and overwork.

Yeah, it's easier say than do when I write for a living. More often than not, techniques a la "get enough sleep" or "say no to deadlines" don't work for writers; but the snag is that time seems the only weapon able to beat your burnout.

The main challenge for me was to admit the problem.

I had to go with it: I was tired, it truly happened, my stress and weakness influenced my thoughts and deeds… Now I understand: the sooner you recognize burnouts, the easier and faster it will be to cope with them.

Don't blame yourself and don't consider yourself a loser every time you can't finish a chapter or write 10,000 words a day. If you're stuck, it doesn't mean you are bad. It means you're burning out and it's high time to change working patterns.

To cope and recover from writer burnout, I tried these tactics:
  • Don't wait for vacations, take a couple of days off if feel exhausted.
  • Evaluate the scope of your writing tasks, and don't be afraid of delegating some whenever appropriate.
  • Set boundaries: don't write during your off work time.
  • Take regular breaks while writing.

I just took a time-out and decided what I could do to relax a bit. Walks and meetings with friends did wonders, but there was also a forbidden ground: we couldn't discuss work!

Small talks are what built emotional connections, feeding a burned out me.

Besides, sharp impressions are what we writers need to restart. So I changed a picture to decrease anger, irritation, fatigue, and stress: I visited exhibitions or museums, went to the country, and watched people in the streets.

It's what Julia Cameron calls an "artist's date" in her book The Artist's Way: each week, plan an outing to some places of inspiration, unrelated to your writing obligations.

More tips needed?

We all are different, so it would be wrong to claim that any given technique will work for each and all writers. Depending on the severity of your emotional burnout, some might help you more than others.

So here are several options to consider.

For those experiencing the incipience of writer burnout:
  • Take care of your sleep. A deep one is most helpful.
  • Go in for sports. Physical exercising stimulates endorphins secretion, decreasing anxiety.
  • Don't forget to take breaks from work, even if deadlines are at the back of the pack.
  • Practice activities other than writing: painting, gardening, or any other creative outlets will work like meditation feeding you with new writing ideas and motivation to work.
  • Write in different locations: coffee shops, coworking spaces, parks... A scenery change will help to catch your writing muse and, therefore, avoid blocks leading to anger and frustration.
For those with deep burnouts (like me):
  • Identify your blocks. What does make you feel bad about writing: you can't concentrate, you are afraid of failure, you don't have enough writing skills to expand the idea, you're tired of writing on one and the same topic, you can't think of power words to develop the story?
  • Define your physical condition. Health problems make our creative geniuses slow, locking motivation and inspiration to write. Indeed, what writer can stay productive when suffering from pain or stresses related to physical health?
  • Take a vacation. For many writers, it's the best way to cope with burnouts. Several weeks without a pen or a keyboard in hands may lead to new experiences and, therefore, new writing ideas after you come back to work.
  • Evaluate your current writing path. Are you happy with it? Does it allow you to achieve goals? Maybe it's time to change the approach to work, think of new genres, or even change the niche?

I couldn't cope with my burnout alone, and it took some time to realize I needed to reach out to mental health specialists. A psychotherapist helped to understand what prevented my wellness, and she pointed me towards life optimization for fewer stresses and more pleasures.

My strong advice is, don't hesitate to ask for help if you feel something is wrong in your writing world.

Summing Up

No writer is immune to burnouts. As any other job, writing can drive you crazy, makes you sad or mad, gets you angry and frustrated, and even excite a desire to give it up.

Yes, it happens. And it's okay to stuck.

Don't be afraid to admit you have a problem. Take a break, a day off, or a long vacation. Let yourself relax and change the scenery. And once you get back to a computer, you'll love writing again.

Sometimes we'd better stop for a while rather than force ourselves to write and develop health problems, don't you agree?

1 comment:

  1. Good post. Appreciate you sharing your issues and what worked for you. I often find that just getting up from the computer and doing a simple household task refreshes me. But not having so strict a goal for each day also helps. As well as trying to change up tasks.