As writers, it can be helpful to acknowledge that in the same way we shape our sentences, our mental health impacts our craft in powerful, albeit not always positive, ways.
Developing good habits that keep our brains healthy, and avoiding negative ones, is as important, if not more important, to our writing craft as correct grammar and syntax. Particularly so for writers of creative nonfiction, whose subject matter delves into the personal.
Brain science tells us that what we think and how we think can rewire our brains over time. Writing can be an incredibly healing process. Conversely, if our brains are not healthy, writing may trigger behaviors that can be harmful to us.
And certain behaviors, such as overthinking, actually damage areas of the brain (such as the hippocampus) that process emotions and memories—functions critical to our work as writers who make meaning from our memories.
The book, Breaking Overthinking, by Eric Robertson, covers how the hippocampus is affected by overthinking. The hippocampus, amygdala, and hypothalamus comprise our limbic system, which helps to regulate our long-term memory, survival instincts, and emotions, including stress and negative emotions. Overthinking shrinks the region of our brain where the hippocampus is located, which can, over time, affect the overall limbic system and trigger thought processes that lead to mental illness.
“When the hippocampus or any part of the limbic system is affected, our body’s natural instinctual response system sends false signals to our body that we could be in danger. Due to this process, surges of cortisol get produced in large amounts throughout our body. Cortisol is the hormone that gives us symptoms of anxiety attacks and PTSD trauma,” Robertson writes.
The limbic system, he explains, takes what we see, and how we interpret situations and turns them into how we respond emotionally to them:
“During a distressing encounter, the hippocampus is activated and is mainly accountable for memory functions and processing. … The hippocampus not only organizes and interprets new memories, but it also connects your experiences (sensations and emotions) to these memories. … When the hippocampus is damaged – due to chronic stress caused by overthinking everything – you may find it difficult to remember things such as dates, events, names, and putting memories into chronological order. Damage to the left hippocampus affects how you recall verbal information. Damage to the right hippocampus affects the ability to recall visual information. Damage to the hippocampus means that this part of the brain can actually shrink in size. If it shrinks you have a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and significant decreases in memory performance.”
When the limbic system is out of whack, it affects our sleep, hormones, appetite, emotions—in short, everything. Overthinking can create false realities, trigger cortisol production, and affect other parts of our brain, leading to significant long-term negative consequences for our health.
The book goes on to identify tools to stop overthinking, which you may find useful if you struggle with it and are interested in reading the book.
Understanding our thought processes and cycles is a lifelong endeavor. Our bodies affect our minds. Our mind affects our bodies. Writing can sometimes feel akin to conjuring magic, something we can’t quite control but sometimes if we’re lucky, get to pin down. But our writing comes from an organic place, from our brain and our body.
Mental health is important to our writing and, of course, far more than our writing. Every aspect of our lives depends on it. Anyone who struggles with their mental health knows the impact it can have not only on their life but also on their relationships with their friends and loved ones.
We talk about craft as having to do with the mechanics of grammar, but writers are not robots. Our minds are complex, chicken-egg creations—both shaping—and being shaped by our thoughts in every moment. Understanding brain science, and using the tools at our disposal to keep our minds healthy, is important.
Resources and Related Reading:
- Breaking Overthinking by Eric Robertson
- CRAFT: How to Revise and Share Writing About Trauma in a Safe(r) Way by Yolande House
- CRAFT: Writing to Heal – A Primer by Yolande House