Culturing Creativity: It’s Okay to Relax

Welcome back to Culturing Creativity!

Today we’re talking about how it’s okay to relax—something we think most writers struggle to do when trying to balance the demands of a full-time job, family, and squeezing your writing in to every available minute.

Though it’s tempting to fill out every moment of your day and to ‘be productive,’ taking some time relax and let your brain unwind is just as important.

Find out more by tuning into this week’s episode.

Culturing Creativity: It's Okay to Relax
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Ashley: Hey everyone, welcome back to Dear Writer. Today it is episode 17 of the podcast and the third episode of our Culturing Creativity in Our Lives miniseries. Today we’re going to be having a chat about how it’s okay to relax, and the benefits of taking time out to reset.

Sarah: Yeah, and so I did have a just short disclaimer. So what we’re going to be talking about today skims sort of the topics of managing anxiety and stress. But I did want to say that if you are struggling to get through the day on a more consistent basis, and you’re having unmanageable physical symptoms. Just to name a few of them: like finding it hard to breathe; a sense of impending doom; sweating; palpitations; a rapid heartbeat; trouble concentrating or sleeping. Those sorts of things. If you’re having a lot of that, then I would highly recommend that you talk to your doctor about it.

Ashley: Yes, please. Please do. But with that out of the way, maybe we should jump into our conversation.

Sarah: Yeah.

Ashley: So I was thinking we could start with an easy, a nice easy question. What do you do to relax, Sarah? Or try and do to relax, may be a better way to phrase that.

Sarah: I am not the best at taking time out to relax, and I’m constantly working on that. Because often I’ll let anxiety and stress mount up and go by unnoticed until it gets to a point where I’m quite anxious. And I’ve kind of learned the signs of this for me. Not that I can’t breathe, but I will often yawn a bit more, or I become hyper focused on my breathing and it feels like I can’t get enough air in. But for me, I know what I can do to make that better. And in my brain, even as I’m feeling it, I know that it’s anxiety related. So, I dive into the root of the problem. And usually it’s because I’ve got a lot going on, exams and things, or I haven’t been exercising, been putting too much information into my brain. And so once I pinpoint the problem and reassure myself about it, it seems to get better. But I do have techniques like meditation and yoga, which I use to unwind. So, a long time ago, I discovered a technique called progressive muscle relaxation. Not sure if you’ve ever tried that Ashley, or?

Ashley: No, I’ve never done yoga, and I’ve never meditated. So… I’ve also never done and progressive muscle relaxation. I’ve never tried that either.

Sarah: Meditation is really good. It’s supposed to help maintain I think they’ve done studies—don’t quote me on this, but—I’m fairly certain they’ve done studies that it shows people who meditate will often have increased gray matter in their brain.

Ashley: Oh, okay.

Sarah: Later in life and things. So it is sort of proven, more, more than just a placebo effect or relax… relaxation method, it does actually have some physical benefits as well.

Ashley: Oh, yeah.

Sarah: But so progressive muscle relaxation is, you tend to start with muscle groups. I always work, top to bottom and you just get yourself in a space where it’s quiet. Or maybe you might have some nice music going on in the background. There is like a couple of different methods. One of them, I think, is clench the muscles in the area. Like so, clench your face and then let it relax and totally… But then, for me, I tend to do it if I’m having difficulty sleeping or just lie in bed and I’ll think about relaxing each group of muscles—

Ashley: Right.

Sarah: —one by one. I’m so good at it now that I usually don’t get through the whole thing. I’ll get down to like, I dunno, my back muscles or something and then I’ll be asleep.

Ashley: That’s a good technique. I often struggle to get to sleep, but I go for the cruder method of counting backwards from 1000 which is fine, except when you get to zero, it’s really depressing.

Sarah: 99 bottles of beer on the wall…

Ashley: Yeah. takes a really long time. But yeah, that’s what I usually do. I might try your method.

Sarah: Yeah, it is quite good. The only thing is, because I use it so much when I go to sleep. Using it during the day sometimes, doesn’t work that great because you don’t really want to be falling asleep in the middle of day. Although if you’re having anxiety, maybe you do. I don’t know. However, I find just yoga is really good for focusing on breathing, but in a positive way, so.

Ashley: Right.

Sarah: Because yoga is all about letting the breath in, and then out as you do movements. You know, stretching your muscles. Yeah, I find that quite calming. I will often indulge myself—well not often—but I will sometimes indulge myself by having a bath, or just really simple things to relax.

Ashley: Yeah.

Sarah: Yeah, how about you? What sort of things do you do to relax?

Ashley: Well, as I said, I’ve never meditated or done yoga or done the progressive muscle relaxation. I am one of those people who has a very, very active brain. And I think that maybe stems from the fact that I also work in an academic subject. So my brain is always working quite intensely. And by the nature of working in academia, obviously it’s incredibly high pressure to perform as well. So it’s quite a stressful environment, but that’s okay, I’ve learned a lot of techniques as well to cope with stress and things. I do get quite intense anxiety sometimes. And I don’t have the same symptoms as you, I have the like stomach, upset stomach where your tummy goes all weird. And then I get the shakes basically as well. But I’ve discovered… and it’s more I think a situational one, if that makes any sense? Like something happens that makes me really stressed. Yeah. So, mines usually if I’ve, say, used a chemical that’s really, really toxic. And afterwards, I’m like, oh I hope I didn’t get it on myself. And then I’ll be like, oh my gosh. Did I get it on myself? Oh my gosh, am I gonna die? And then like, have like a massive panic attack. But it’s okay, I’m getting better at them. But obviously other, other things too, can trigger it. For those, I usually just take a moment, go—it sounds weird—I go into the, the fire escape.

Sarah: I guess it’s probably quiet, right?

Ashley: Really quiet, no one goes into the fire escape. And then, you know, just like breathe. Calm down. Sometimes I’ll go for a walk, until my heart rate settles down again and I stop, you know, shaking and feeling like I’m going to be ill, and then usually I’m okay after that. But apart from when I, you know, have a bit of anxiety I try and swim a lot. I find that for me, so I used to be a competitive swimmer. So, something comes very naturally to me, but I also usually say do quite an intensive program, which means I have to think a lot about the swimming that I’m doing. So counting lengths, counting strokes. And so when I’m doing that, I don’t have like the brain capacity to think about anything else except for, okay there’s five strokes to the wall, turn, that’s five lengths. Now I have to do six lengths. Oh, I’m five more strokes from the wall. Turn. Seven lengths, like that. So it ends up being quite relaxing and I generally find exercise helps me relax a lot anyways, so the combination’s quite good.

Sarah: Yeah.

Ashley: Except I have been injured quite a lot in the last year. So that’s been quite frustrating. So I haven’t been allowed to swim as much as I want.

Sarah: That would be hard.

Ashley: It’s okay. It’s very annoying. But I can go back now that my cast is off, so that’s good.

Sarah: Yay!

Ashley: But we’ll see how long that lasts for. I also do aqua aerobics, which again is one of those things that you can’t think of anything else when you’re doing aqua aerobics, because it’s so intensive and a lot of weird motions.

Sarah: It does sound very intense.

Ashley: Yeah, the lady who—some people think it’s just for old people. And sometimes I think I might be an old person in a 30 year old’s body, but—the lady who does our aqua aerobics, she’s a personal trainer and quite like, she’s a really intense lady. So the average age of our class is probably, I’d say 30 to 35 so very young.

Sarah: Oh Yeah.

Ashley: Very energetic and it’s quite intense, but that’s good.

Sarah: That is good.

Ashley: But again, the pool that this lady usually does it at suffered a catastrophic fault during the first level… our first level for lockdown in March. So it hasn’t been going, which has been very depressing. So I tried out a new aqua aerobics last week, and it wasn’t the same. The lady wasn’t the same, the music wasn’t the same, the pool was different, and I was just like ah, I don’t know if I can, how much on board I can get with it, but I will give it another go. Anyways, I also walk my dog a lot, which helps. One because he’s really cute, and two because walking helps.

Sarah: Just reach down and pat him, have those endorphins released.

Ashley: Yeah, exactly. I also am a big fan of cryptic crosswords, and I do take time out of my day every day to do one. It sounds a bit counterintuitive because you do have to use your brain a lot, but it is applying it in I guess, a different aspect?

Sarah: Yeah.

Ashley: Like a different way. So that tends to make you kind of forget about whatever is bothering you, because they’re so challenging and I like to think it’s good for my future brain health, staving dementia and everything. I’m going to do one every day for the rest of my life. Yep. If you haven’t done cryptic crosswords I highly recommend. They’re a good time, they’re very satisfying when you solve the puzzles.

Sarah: When you solve it. Unless you’re like me and you’re just staring at it for a ridiculous amount of time.

Ashley: That used to be me, but I got… there’s a lot of tricks and clues that you figure out kind of how, how the puzzles work. And then it becomes slightly easier. I’m still stuck at about—by myself—I can finish half a puzzle and then I’ll have to come back to it and I can like maybe get another few clues.

Sarah: That would stress me out so much. I’m sorry. I think it would be a good thing for some people. But I think the perfectionist in me would really stress out about not being able to finish it.

Ashley: That’s why I usually do it with someone in my lab because between us, we can pretty much… if we don’t finish the puzzle in one go, it’s unusual. We sometimes will have to Google or look up one clue. And it will be some obscure reference to a poet that we’ve never heard of and we’re like, well, okay, fine. That’s why we don’t understand. But we’re getting quite good, just by yourself it’s a little bit harder, I think. It’s one of those things that’s easier to discuss with another person.

Sarah: Mm hmm.

Ashley: Otherwise, I do, I also do puzzles as well. Like normal, like jigsaw puzzles.

Sarah: Puzzles are fun.

Ashley: They are fun. And they pass the time really quickly.

Sarah: They do.

Ashley: And they’re also very good for distracting yourself from whatever issues you are having.

Sarah: They can be quite addictive.

Ashley: Exactly. Like, oh I’ll just do, I’ll just work on it for five or ten minutes. Two hours later you’re like, oh, where’d the time go?

Sarah: So I think the next question is, why do we think it’s important to take time to relax and do these things?

Ashley: I think to start with, it’s takes quite a toll on your body, both mentally and physically when you’re constantly going. Whether it thinking or working or whatever 24/7. And I think that when you are able to take time to relax or take a break, even if it’s just taking an actual lunch break at work. Or, or whatever your chosen method to relax is. I, I personally find I have higher productivity. I think it’s probably because you feel a bit more refreshed and you’re able to focus more and you’re not sort of weighed down by all of the thoughts or whatever was going on your mind before.

Sarah: Yeah.

Ashley: Kind of gives you a clearer picture on what you were, what you’re wanting to do. So I find that’s one thing that’s really beneficial and probably one of the reasons you should try and take time to relax. Obviously, it is very good for your mental health, I think, helping you to reduce stress and things like that. If it’s something that works for you. I know for some people it might not. So, but if it does work for you, then it is it is good. And another thing that I find is really, you know, another positive that I take away from it is it… I think I write better when I more relaxed. If I try to sit down and write immediately after work, especially if it’s been quite a stressful, or a really, really hectic busy day. I can hardly write to start with. And two, it ends up even if I do manage to write, I always have to fix a lot of it because it’s not… either it’s not focused, or it’s not particularly I’m gonna go with very, it’s not particularly me, if that makes any sense. Like it doesn’t sound like my usual writing. So I have to go back and work on it again—

Sarah: Right.

Ashley: —at another time. What about you, Sarah.

Sarah: So I think I… well between us we’ve talked about some of the physical symptoms and mental symptoms of anxiety, and I think that can be really detrimental to your health overall. From a medical perspective, the stats around anxiety are actually quite huge. I think it’s a stat that’s kind of been toted around quite a lot, I think, in recent times. But if you haven’t heard it before, uh so about one in five people suffer from some sort of anxiety. And covid’s only really made that worse with isolation, financial stress, and concerns about health and wellness. As you said, I—

Ashley: I can definitely see that.

Sarah: Yeah, I think it really does affect your creativity because when you have these anxious thoughts, I think people who are worried or anxious and stressed, you tend to have a different type of thought pattern, where you’re thinking, you’re ruminating on the same topic over and over again and… or you could also be, like your mind can feel a bit cluttered, like there’s just all this information going in at once. And so I think if you don’t take that time to wind down then it comes through into your writing, and it can be hard to form a coherent narrative out of, out of your writing if you write when you’re really stressed, which I think is kind of shown in what you were saying, Ashley, about right after work, not being able to feel like yourself when you’re sitting down writing.

Ashley: Yeah.

Sarah: I think when you’ve got so many thoughts going on in your in your head that it’s really hard to, to get a clear picture. Like I did a brief search on the internet about just creativity and anxiety and it came up with a lot of stuff about creativity and anxiety being highly linked.

Ashley: Okay.

Sarah: And I was, kind of felt a bit conflicted on this. Because I think the causality between, like is highly questionable. I’m not really sure, you know, and some of the articles that I read kind of mentioned that, you know, does creativity attract anxious types of people or does the isolation that we face cause anxiety because typically writing is a very solitary activity. And I would say it’s a bit of both, I think, but I don’t think it really has to be that way.

Ashley: I’d agree.

Sarah: Yeah, like we were talking about before with, with anxiety being, like stunting your creativity, I don’t think it’s helpful to be that way. Like, I understand that for some people, you know, they’re coming to it from a perspective of using their writing as a sort of cathartic kind of thing for them. But I do think that certainly, you don’t have to be a tortured artist to do well. What would you say about that, Ashley?

Ashley: I think—I haven’t, I haven’t looked into this very much, but—I would agree that I don’t maybe tortured artist might be more of a stereotype than anything else, you know. I think hopefully these days a lot more people are breaking that mold, I hope.

Sarah: Yeah, I hope so too, for their health if anything else.

Ashley: Yes, yeah. I don’t know. I kind of agree with what you were saying before, where creativity, and… oh my gosh. That creativity and anxiety are linked, but I guess they could be linked both ways. You know that sometimes can help you a little bit if you’re anxious, especially getting to know I think characters in your books, if you’ve had anxiety and your characters in your books are, you know, really anxious or really stressed, you’re able to portray that better, I suppose. But then the other way as well, where you’re writing can be detrimentally affected if you personally are too anxious or too stressed and you end up not producing your best work. So I find that also happens to me in both, in my professional life and when I’m writing. That if I’m too stressed, I don’t produce my best work, so. I can still produce stuff, but it’s nowhere near to the, you know, I have quite a high standard, it’s nowhere near the standard that I would usually be happy with, I suppose.

Sarah: Yeah. Yeah, I definitely think that, I mean obviously every experience that we have adds to our writing in a positive way that we can express things more and we can relate with our characters more, but I don’t think you should be seeking out these negative experiences simply for the fact of, oh, you know, only tortured artists do well and I can’t express this situation, unless I’ve lived through it. Because I do believe that that’s kind of what is great about being a human and being sort of being empathetic creatures is we are able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. And sure, maybe we, we might not get it perfectly correct every time, but as long as we’re trying to understand it, I think that’s kind of what makes us human. And what is the best way to sort of try and develop your characters as well.

Ashley: Yeah, I think so. I agree. I agree. So the next question that we were going to talk about is, what some of the barriers are to being able to relax. What, what do you think Sarah?

Sarah: So I think guilt is a huge factor. I think for a lot of people, myself included. I know even, even simple things and so when I, when I was brought up—and I’m like this is a positive thing because you don’t want your children to be lying around watching TV all the time—but I felt like, often we were pushed into going outside. We were pushed into like doing stuff constantly and I feel like in some ways that’s carried through into my adult life is, sometimes I do struggle to sit down and relax, because I feel guilty and I’m like what? I’ve got the curtains closed at the middle of the day and I’m watching TV. What am I doing? How dare I have time to do that when I could be writing or I could be outside and like, enjoying the world.

Ashley: Yeah.

Sarah: So I find that kind of hard. And I know I’ve heard writers with young children say that they feel when they sit down to write that they’re not being good parents, they’re not interacting with their children. And when they’re interacting with the children then they, they feel that they’re not being the best writer that they could either. And I think that’s the same like I don’t have any children, but I can certainly understand that that would be a really tough thing to face and I find that even just with my, my husband. Sometimes I feel guilty because that he, you know, works these really long hours and then he comes home and I shut myself in my office for half the night.

Ashley: Yeah.

Sarah: But yeah, so I think guilt is a huge thing. And I think you just need to, to let yourself know that it’s okay. And we talked about scheduling a little bit in our last Culturing Creativity episode, and I think scheduling is really important because it allows you to use that time and focus completely. Rather than, you know. And once it’s done, it’s done as well. You can’t, if you’re going to schedule something, you need to give yourself that time and then not let it bleed into the next things on your list, because then you’re still start… you’ll still keep feeling that guilt coming through. What you think, Ashley?

Ashley: Oh, I would definitely agree. I think, generally speaking, a lot of people have a really hard time winding down and relaxing. And I think especially people in the same situation as us where we have a day job, and we want to make time to write. So kind of feel like you need all the time that you can get for your writing when you’re trying to fit it into such a busy schedule. And so, you know, we try and use all the spare time that we have to write, or at least we try to. I try to anyways. And then again, yeah. When you want to relax you start to feel guilty, which I think that’s okay though. It is a barrier to relax, and I think that’s okay because it does mean that you care a lot about your writing, which I think is important. Because if you didn’t, I think, feel like you should be doing things. But it’s actually then you know being like, hey, but it’s okay. And I really should relax. I think another issue is finding something that actually makes you relax. Like for example, for me, I really, I can’t watch TV and movies very much anymore because I do not find it very relaxing in any way at all. I get incredibly anxious and overthink things, especially when I’m watching really, you know, intense TV shows, murder mysteries dramas, thrillers, all that kind of stuff. And my mind won’t stop working. So it makes it so much worse. And then I like, the catch 22 of it is, I only want to watch TV shows and things that are really good, you know, and worth my time to watch. But all of those are really intense heavy subjects. So I end up just not really watching anything anymore. I’m kind of like, yeah. I guess finding things that you enjoy that actually make you relax, I think, is another thing that can be difficult. You just have to try lots of different things. Try new hobbies, perhaps.

Sarah: Yeah, you do have to find what you do to play, I guess.

Ashley: Yeah.

Sarah: I heard it said, you know, what do you do when no one’s watching? And that’s probably what you’ll enjoy most doing. And so that’s what you should spend your time on when you’re trying to relax.

Ashley: Yeah.

Sarah: Although now that I think about it, I’m not sure that’s necessarily… I’m not 100% that that’s brilliant advice from the terms that like a lot of us I think would say that we really love writing and reading, but I think it’s also about having a variety of activities that you can turn to so that you’re not using your brain, in the same way all the time. I think you need to be able to exercise your brains in different ways.

Ashley: Yeah. Definitely.

Sarah: I think, is part of it as well.

Ashley: So I was just about to say, if you asked me what I do and no one’s looking, it would be writing. And I was, that’s the opposite point that we’re trying to make. That does lead in to really nicely though, our last question to talk about, which is what do you think about writing to relax? When… before we started taking, like actually working incredibly hard to get our books up to scratch and, you know, thinking about doing writing more of a not full time, but more intensively. Let’s go with that. I would have said that I write to relax. That is definitely I don’t think the case anymore. But I know a lot of people write journals and do expressive writing to help ease stress and relax. This isn’t something that I do personally. I’ve tried to write journals a couple of times. But I don’t know if it’s the critic in me, but I find myself criticizing and wanting to edit my journal entries which then doesn’t help. So I don’t really do that anymore. But sometimes I do view the novels that Sarah and I write as a little bit of an escape, especially when things, you know, how stressful in life and work and whatever. Obviously we’ve created these other worlds that we can step into. So sometimes I do find that it helps a bit, especially if I’ve managed to, you know, calm down my stress and anxiety I can then jump into our novel. And it’s, you know, quite fun writing about other characters and things for a little bit. Makes you forget about whatever’s been happening. What do you think, have you done a lot of journal writing?

Sarah: I’m kind of a bit similar to you. So I used to do quite a bit of journaling. But it’s not so much that I’d want to edit what I wrote. But it’s after that I don’t know what to do with it. Because if I, I feel the temptation to read it. And then when I read it, I’m like, oh, wow. That is just so embarrassing. What the hell were you thinking? Or, after reading it, then I want to burn it.

Ashley: Oh, no.

Sarah: But then I can’t quite convince myself to burn my memories because it just seems too sad. So then I like, hang on to it in this weird space and it’ll be like, I don’t know, I have a bunch of journals in a shoebox that I don’t know what to do with. But I’ve also, I’ve done a little bit of freefall writing and occasionally I’ll do, I’ll find that helpful because it’s a bit of a different type of journaling, it’s more…

Ashley: Yeah.

Sarah: And I’m a bit less judgmental about it because I’m purposefully going into it with the idea of writing down whatever comes to my mind. And so it’s not like journaling where you sit down and you’re like, today, this happened. I mean, it could be, but if it does you don’t judge yourself as much because it’s kind of like stream of consciousness kind of writing.

Ashley: Okay, yeah, I see.

Sarah: And we might talk about that in the upcoming episode. Another Culturing Creativity episode at some point.

Ashley: I’ll be quite fun do some freefall writing. I’ve never tried it so…

Sarah: Have to give ourselves some, some homework to do it first, though, so.

Ashley: Random question. What, what perspective are your journals in? Are they first person or they like a weird, Sarah did blah, blah, blah.

Sarah: I think they’re first person.

Ashley: Mine have been both.

Sarah: Oh, that’s interesting.

Ashley: Yeah, so sometimes they’re first person, but I’ve gone back and read some from when I was a teenager and occasionally they’re like third person objective.

Sarah: Usually mine are writing to my future self, and it’s quite funny because at the beginning of most of the diaries and it’ll have this weird disclaimer of like, you’re going to read this in the future and want to bang your head against the wall. I’m sorry. And usually, that’s true.

Ashley: Oh my gosh. You’re like, oh no!

Sarah: But I did get to a point, though, where I stopped writing, I only wrote happy stuff my journal, which kind of defied the point as well because I didn’t like reading about the sad stuff. So then I just sort of gave up on it. But maybe, maybe, they’ll make good material for books, one day, go back and read teenage Sarah.

Ashley: I haven’t, I don’t think I’ve written a journal entry since I was probably maybe seventeen. And I go back and I’ve got very sporadic journal entries, and I’ll read them and I’m crying with laughter because I just, I can’t even deal with what I’ve written down. So I don’t think I’m going to do it as an adult at all. It’s to, it, it… I don’t know.

Sarah: Yeah. That’s the same as me.

Ashley: Maybe someone out there journals all the time and they can explain to us how you get past the self-criticism reading it back later.

Sarah: Maybe, maybe. I did want to say, though, if you are not like us, and you do journal, I think that’s really great. I think writing can be a great way to get your feelings onto paper and to crystallize your thoughts, but you do have to be aware that not everything you write if you’re going to write for the purpose of getting your head around an issue, should necessarily be made into a book. I think you do have to have some clarity and objectivity before you go through the process of putting your experiences into a book. I think it’s a great thing to do and that can help, can really help you understand things that are going on for you, but it might be helpful for you to kind of set it aside for a little while and just let it sort of mull, mull over it and then one day in the future, you’ll probably know. And be like, okay, now, now’s a good time to start getting this into something, yeah. Something that maybe others will read. But yes, totally fine if you never get to that point as well just recognize that it’s a work for yourself. And that’s really cool.

Ashley: Alrighty. Is that about all we have time for?

Sarah: Yes.

Ashley: Yes?

Sarah: I do believe we’ve run out of time. And I think that was our last point, did you have anything else that you wanted to say, or?

Ashley: Nope, nope, I’m good. What about you, Sarah?

Sarah: I’m good. So to wrap this up. So next time on Dear Writer, it’s the third of our author spotlight interview series. So keep an ear out for that, I guess.

Ashley: Yeah. It should be a really good interview. I’m quite excited about it.

Sarah: Yes, yeah me too. And in the meantime, if you want to get ahold of us. You can visit us on

Ashley: You can also check out our Instagram or Facebook as well. If you want to get hold of us. That’s also @lindersoncreations.

Sarah: You can rate and review this podcast on Apple podcasts would be really helpful, if you liked it. Subscribe on whatever podcatcher you use. Tell a friend about it. But yeah, happy writing everyone.