mental health

The “Nothing” Trap

“Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”

~ A. A. Milne

Everything in your mind and body rests in complete peace. For the first time today (maybe this week), you can think straight. There’s no surge of excess adrenaline coursing through your veins, making you jittery and anxious. You’re not spiraling through endless loops of self-critical statements. It’s a perfect, crystal-clear moment where you and the world come together and recognize one another. Which is when a voice in the back of your mind starts screaming out an alarm:

Holy shit! You’re doing NOTHING!

And thus ends that fragile moment of perfection. Anxiety starts pumping panic into your system, and you jump up to pace. You look around you to count how many people noticed your slacking. The self-recrimination kicks in. How DARE you sit down and do nothing? You lazy bum! What the hell were you THINKING?! (Oh, right – you weren’t) A frantic search ensues to find something – anything – to do so you don’t find yourself permanently labeled a slacker. Even if NO ONE ELSE IS AROUND.

Meanwhile, the happiness and calm your mind and body found shatters into little pieces. Your poor system tries to figure out what happened. Because that moment of nothing? You NEEDED it! You WERE accomplishing something, however invisible. Sitting in the quiet let your system recharge and reset. It dropped the excess levels of unneeded chemicals in your body. For the first time in who knows how long, you listened to yourself.

Doing nothing matters!

Unfortunately, doing nothing carries a nasty stigma. Only lazy people slack off and laze about with nothing to do. They’re bums without ambition or drive. No one wants that image attached to them. Productive people constantly move forward, checking off lists. Time to sit around? Obviously you lead an easy life. People set up a ridiculous competition of who has more to do. And if you happen to mention that you have an open slot in your schedule, you’re the envy – but NOT in a good way.

So we adopt this programming. And when we doze off in the afternoon, or binge an entire television series in a weekend, we cringe and abuse ourselves for doing so. The fact that we NEEDED that down time? Doesn’t matter. We find a reason to dose ourselves with guilt for doing nothing. (And don’t you dare TELL anyone you slacked off! Sacrilege!) It’s a secret embarrassment we carry around.

I still struggle with the “nothing” trap. Most weekends, I’m barely awake. Why? Because I push myself so much during the week that my system crashes. And even though I KNOW that’s what’s going on, I batter myself for doing nothing. I should be getting chores done. There are projects I could work on. ANYTHING to achieve productivity. But constantly dozing on the couch? That’s what a lazy person does.

Or, you know, a person trying to recuperate.

Doing nothing is OKAY. You put in energy, resources, and mental strength minute after minute ALL THE TIME. If you find yourself with free time, park your ass and DO NOTHING. Let everything fall down. The world won’t end (I promise – it hasn’t yet). And DON’T lecture yourself when you do. You need those empty moments. They’re what keep you strong. Without the empty quiet, you’ll fall apart. Which benefits NO ONE.

It’s time to break out of the “nothing” trap. Embrace your down time. Celebrate it and treasure it. View those empty moments for what they are: the recuperation of your mind and body. And if people say anything or make comments, ignore them. Because, honestly – for all their talk – you know they park their ass on the couch and DO NOTHING themselves. They just don’t want to admit it.

mental health

Brain 180

Collection of blue arts and crafts supplies
Photo by Shopify Partners from Burst

Overcoming the need to constantly achieve perfection is difficult. Remembering to take a time out and allow the brain and body to reset is crucial to our general well-being (and sanity – though that’s overrated). I’m the first to admit that I continue to struggle with both on a daily basis. However, I’ve found an outlet that’s set me on the right path:

Creativity.

Now, I could cheat and say that my speculative fiction fills that creative outlet, but that’s an outright lie. Writing is writing, no matter how your dress it up. Sure, I have complete creative freedom with my own writing (though, to be honest, I have pretty loose reins with most of my freelance work). It’s still work, though. I demand nothing short of perfection from myself. Watching me edit makes a deranged serial killer look like an angel. I’m ruthless. I hack and slash with the best horror movie monster. Even the writing process is terrifying; no character is safe. (Not even main characters – no one gets my sympathy!)

No, when I say you need a creative outlet to escape to, I mean something outside of your wheelhouse. Something you maybe aren’t good at but enjoy. (Don’t torture yourself – that’s bad for your anxiety and depression) Something that engages the other half of your brain, taking pressure off your overworked synapses. An art form that sparks your imagination and gets you excited in a different way than your usual goals.

A break that isn’t a break.

Sneaky, right? You’re still actively participating in SOMETHING, but you’re not driving yourself crazy with work. You step away from assignments and a need for perfection (that’s a cardinal rule, by the way), and you just PLAY. It’s not a complete reset, which appeals to those of us who struggle with the need to STOP, but it gives your brain breathing room.

The kicker is finding something creative you WON’T stress over. You have to relinquish the reins of perfection and be willing to create a mess. Remember, this isn’t something you’re pursuing as a goal. This isn’t a lifelong dream. This is just a creative outlet. Something that catches your interest. A 180 from your usual interests and work pursuits. Something you’re willing to complete suck at. (No one else has to see the results except you)

I have a couple of creative retreats. I have a scrapbook I’m slowly moving my old pictures into. Is it Pinterest worthy? Not by a long shot. Am I proud of it? Of course I am! I love all of the papers, stickers, and various scissors. Looking through the old pictures relaxes my brain, flares old memories, and drops my shoulders back where they belong.

I sketch and draw. Are any of the pictures going to sell on Etsy? Not even for a penny. But I like them. The movement of the pencils across the page does something to my body. I feel my blood pressure come down, synapses quiet, and my lips curve into a smile. The sound blends with the music I listen, soothing the thoughts in my head until there’s nothing troubling me.

I’m trying to learn to crochet. I have the chain down, but I haven’t figured out any further. The feeling of the yarn under my fingers is soothing, even if the hook and I aren’t sympatico. (Not to mention that fending off cats from the yarn gets annoying after a while) And, while it sounds crazy, knowing that I’m struggling with something my sister is a sheer genius at (she even creates her own patterns!) calms my brain. I SUCK at something! It’s humbling.

Simple, uncomplicated, and WORTH it!

When everything starts overwhelming me, I go to my creative outlets and resettle. When I feel like I can’t take time out (guilt’s a terrible thing, by the way), doing SOMETHING eases the feeling. It’s a break, don’t get me wrong, but it’s an active break. My brain still gets the chance to reset some of the circuit breakers, and I get to wake up some of the breakers that were asleep. It’s a win-win, of sorts. And I’m creating SOMETHING! I’m using my hands to create something of my own that has meaning to me.

Find a creative outlet that works for you. You won’t regret it. And your brain will thank you.