Writing And Depression

There’s said to be a correlation between writing and depression, in that people who have a diagnosis of clinical depression are more likely to keep a journal. One response to this finding is to advise depressive people not to keep diaries, in the expectation that there’s a causal relationship in that correlation. As far as I know, although this connection has been established, it’s unclear whether it’s because journalling, if that’s the word, and depression have a common cause, or whether depressed people write diaries for therapy, or, as seems to be the assumption, writing a diary helps make you depressed.

All three could be true to some extent. Just because you think something is therapeutic, it doesn’t mean it is. One thing I learnt from being a herbalist is that in terms of health, people tend to be their own worst enemies, and in particular that some people have a dynamic where they seem to be prepared to change absolutely anything about their lifestyle except for the one simple thing which would make the most difference. People are driven to self-harm. But self-harm itself isn’t simple and can be a coping strategy and a form of therapy for some. It can be motivated by numbness or the need to express outwardly pain one feels inwardly, and also self-harm can be very subtle, as with Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome for example. This is the inherited X-linked absence or deficiency of an enzyme which results in the build up of uric acid in the tissues, leading to physical damage and death before the age of thirty in most cases. It also involves self-harm, involving severe lip- and finger-biting, head-banging, gouging of eyes and scratching one’s face. People with it are often physically restrained to prevent them from doing this. But from a psychiatric point of view, one of the interesting things about Lesch-Nyhan is that in people with two X-chromosomes, who are therefore less affected, although it’s usually asymptomatic some of them develop emotionally self-sabotaging behaviour instead of physical self-harm, tending to exclude themselves from socialising in spite of wanting to, and pushing people away emotionally. I say “interesting”, but I could equally well have said “tragic”. It’s fair to say that those who are wont to self-harm physically are familiar with more subtle self-sabotage, and this could be carried out through writing.

Some people troll themselves. They make up sock-puppet accounts on social media and fora and comment on their own stuff in a negative way, in order to make themselves feel bad. This is very obviously self-harm, in this case in public. They tell themselves that they’re ugly and stupid, that nobody will ever love them and so forth. This is a kind of writing, of course, which is not therapeutic as far as I can see, although I shouldn’t make assumptions from the outside. All I can say is that it seems unlikely that it helps people feel better about themselves, although they may sometimes be trying to elicit sympathy from others.

But this is not necessarily particularly novel. The difference is the easy publicity of approaching it in this way. A rather less public and much older form of self-trolling might occur in writing a diary, and this wouldn’t seem to be therapeutic. A diary could consist of a series of passages where the diarist is trying to make themselves feel bad, but there could also be less overt ways in which the entries are harmful because they may brood over things and pull the writer down into the abyss.

I’m portraying this as if there’s a choice about it, but there may not be. I don’t wish to label and pathologise everything I do, but along with being practically certain I’m diagnosable as depressed, I’m also pretty sure I exhibit hypergraphia. Hypergraphia is the compulsion to write. There’s a case on record of a neurologist who wrote a textbook based on her compulsive note-taking and went into overdrive when she lost twin babies shortly after they were born. There’s an association with temporal lobe epilepsy and bipolar disorder and it responds to anti-depressants. It’s said to be rare but I’m extremely doubtful about that. Maybe it’s unusual for someone to write all over their walls and ceiling and proceed to cover every blank piece of paper they can find with writing, but that’s an extreme and judging by my own internal state, and also I suspect Sarada’s, the urge to write is constantly there and needs to be sat upon to stop it from happening, although the existence of writer’s block suggests that this is not always so. Isaac Asimov, Sylvia Plath and Danielle Steele are examples of hypergraphics whose products have turned out to be publishable and popular. However, even if it’s helpful, there are problems with writing because it can stop you from doing other things like earning a living, so if you are hypergraphic, you’d better hope you’re also lucky because your stuff may well not be publishable or noticed as such. It just spools out with no inner critic. The inner critic is something to do with the temporal and frontal lobes, or maybe their interaction, and we don’t always have the luxury of the right degree of connection between the two.

Not everything is hypergraphia. Sometimes there’s just diary-writing, but even therapeutic self-examination can later turn out to be problematic. When you write a journal, you may well be helping yourself work through stuff, but that could also be the stuff you need to work through at the time rather than later. If you do a good enough job of putting your feelings meaningfully down on paper, re-reading it can pull you back into that state of mind when you’ve got past it, and if like me you tend to dwell on the past and have difficulty letting go of things, this is quite a hazard. The same could apply to more creative writing such as short stories and novels.

There are reasons why writing itself as a profession or pastime could predispose one to depression. It’s a solitary activity and it can take a long time, if ever, to receive validation for one’s work. Your success depends more than usual on the approval of others, possibly lots of them. It can also be very hard to deal with rejection, although to be honest I can’t personally see a distinction between that and failed job applications. You might be writing indoors and depriving yourself of daylight, or you might be writing late into the night or find that your sleep is interrupted by ideas or conversations which you have to get down. If that happens, and they won’t leave you be unless you do something about them, you start to lose sleep which seriously risks depression and other mental health problems. You might also not exercise much, although I’ve found that exercise stimulates creativity, for better or worse.

Finally, back to the issue of writing as self-harm. This is where it gets complicated. If one is wont to exercise self-sabotage, it can get hard to tell whether pathologising one’s output is a sign of self-sabotage or the output itself is self-sabotage. This is the kind of thing one might want to write about, but then again, should I?

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4 thoughts on “Writing And Depression

  1. “Some people troll themselves. They make up sock-puppet accounts on social media … and comment on their own stuff in a negative way, in order to make themselves feel bad.” This is a thing!? I’ve seen people liking their own blog posts but I assume they think the one extra like will help their rankings somewhere. I “journal” for an outlet and to get thoughts and ideas in order, but also to get things off my chest, which, as you say, probably could have been dealt with at the time.

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  2. You’ve denoted quite a few elements of speculative fiction, attributing to those a potential to correspond with a negative emotional state, i.e., social isolation.

    Let me just state the obvious. Returning quickly to your first paragraph: “… people who have a diagnosis of clinical depression are more likely to keep a journal.” A ‘diagnosis’ at large characterizes those people as having sat an evaluation and to have been encouraged to journal. In other words, those are people who’ve been determined to have a sort of problem that might be addressed through a more complete expression of their internal stress and thought dynamics. Hence, they’re encouraged to journal.

    My clinical experience is, the patients most likely to journal are similarly likely to ask for a doll or comfort animal. They feel captive and vulnerable, and wish something to park between themselves and the cold, circulating flow of humanity wherein they find themselves. Shoving a journal across the table serves to signal, “There you go, wait.” The therapist or lay examiner faces the “Care or dare” dichotomy, and outcomes are fairly predictable.

    I probably can’t find an authoritative (no pun intended) reference, but my understanding is that journaling is only effective when the issue is trauma; actual, physical trauma, that is, not the enigmatic trauma of a lifetime of disappointment or stigma but rather true victimhood as one finds in cases of rape, assault, accidents, disasters, and perhaps in a limited sense the PTSD of first respondents or combat experience. Hence, writing to bare the soul can’t be assumed to be effective to release one from a depressed mood. Can one assume the opposite? Does writing perhaps contribute to a deepening of depressed moods or even allow others who don’t share the mood enough insight to open their minds to a first break to depression? Interesting possibilities, but not enough to limit writing as though risks to the world at large are greater than the benefits.

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