I completely agree with Kait that burnout is a half-step away from depression, a condition that has plagued me for several decades. Although the particulars are different for each person, depression does not manifest as most people assume. Often people are surprised that depression does not always involve “feeling sad.” It is normal to feel sad about many situations: death, divorce, dissention. Also, it is not sufficient to fight depression by “cheering up.” For me, depression is a black hole, sucking everything into it, giving nothing back. Nothing is worth the effort, nothing feels good, nothing tastes good. It is, as William Styron entitled his book about his depression, Darkness Visible.
Both Dawn and Kait offered great advice on dealing with burnout. I have some further suggestions. Often, the most basic needs are the first to hit the skids. I’ve forgotten about them in the grip of the muse, or when facing a deadline, but far more when I am depressed.
First, sleep well. As a chronic insomniac, I will sing the praises of decent sleep forever. Sleep restores the body, replenishes the well of writing ideas, and often sets the muse free. Sleep disturbances, and the attendant fatigue and irritability, are hallmarks of my depression.
Second, eat well. Take the time to prepare good food and eat with awareness. Having made a real meal will pay dividends in avoiding mindless eating, or eating fast food dreck. If you have a family, meals can also provide a social connection. If you are eating alone, read something enjoyable, or think of pleasant things. A change in appetite, either a loss or an increase, is another of my symptoms.
Third, get cleaned up and get dressed. I was amazed by all the NaNo participants who were proud of not showering for days at a time. Really? When I stop taking care of myself, the red flag turns into a railway crossing, with bells and lights blazing. I know then that I am slipping into the Slough of Despond, and need to take major corrective steps.
Fourth, get out of bed or your chair and move. The human body was not meant to sit in chairs at all, especially not for hours at a time. The more I resemble a three-toed sloth, the more depressed I am.
Following close behind the physical needs are the emotional, mental, and social needs. These are trickier than some of the others, because balancing the pull of social media and the loneliness of writing is a struggle for most of us. Also, I think these vary from person to person.
Connect. Some of you may not need the contact, but I do. When I start to hibernate and withdraw, it means I am sliding back into depression. Spending time with people is important. Yes, our significant others and children have to let us close the door for some uninterrupted writing, but when I stop connecting with them, I start writing lifeless prose. You’re too busy? So are we all. Take a ten minute break to connect. It’ll refresh and nurture the human. If you feel guilty stepping away from the craft, then connect within the community.
The range of interests and strengths in the ROW80 community is impressive. The basic principle of ROW80, acknowledging you have a life, means many participants will listen to your gripe or whine, will share joy or sadness along with writing advice. If my experience is the norm, you’ll soon forget that you’ve never met these people in person. The ROW80 Facebook page and #ROW80 sprints on Twitter are great for feeling connected. If you need visual contact and don’t live near anyone else, there are several ways to have face time through the computer screen.
Second, find the mental and emotional space where writing works for you. Too often I hear writers compare themselves to others, in envious tones. Writing is not one-size-fits-all. Find what situations and habits work for you. For example, I find ritual very important in setting time and space aside for writing. Music? Candles? A particular pen or chair? A time of day or night? Whatever the combination of things may be, keep experimenting until it works, and ignore any advice that does not work. Defining and fulfilling your needs will preserve your sanity, as well as your muse.