The Link Between Doing Nothing and Depression (aka What I learned On My Summer Vacation)

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One of the (many) reasons why this project of Doing Nothing is so daunting to me is in fact beyond my perceived obligation of adhering to an insidious set of principles I have unwittingly ascribed to for much of my “productive” life – namely the “Protestant Work Ethic.” (I’m not even Protestant). It’s not just about the “feeling-guilty-because-I’m-not-working-enough” factor. The guilt surfaces, but then eventually subsides. No, it’s something more debilitating than that. An irresistible cycle of other sensations is activated – feeling ungrounded, unsettled, confused – which is then capped off by the kicker: I become depressed. And the longer the time I have to disconnect from the rest of the world (i.e: my computer) the more likely that inevitable depression descends upon me. I’ve previously considered the connection between being (or rather keeping) busy and holding myself together. And this is a known phenomenon too, I realize I’m probably not telling you something you don’t already know. But having the month to sit with this, and let it sit with me, was not the easiest. Once my body’s healing process was underway, I had lots of time to be… with myself, my thoughts and my anxieties. Not being able to really take walks, or do much in the way of physical exertion; not being able to read anything too dense; not really having the concentration to sit and write… meant I had a lot of time to think. Or not think. To just blank out. And feel sad.

Admittedly there were moments of bliss. How joyful to be quiet and calm. To not be on a schedule. To not have to produce! But it often felt tenuous. That adolescent existential stuff that I recall so vividly, those annoying questions that plagued me, seemed to resurface: “What’s the point? What’s my purpose? Is that all there is?” And as one day started melting into another…each day feeling exactly the same, filled with… nothing (I have a history of depression which began at around the age of 14 while reading Albert Camus no less)… I was just concerned that it might spiral out and I along with it…

Which I didn’t. I credit my chanting meditation practice for keeping me on track. But even that felt tenuous at times too. In the realm of Depression, Lethargy is only ever a few steps away…

One book I did manage to read – as recommended to me by fellow artists from DARE-DARE – had some insightful reflections on the connection between spacing out and being down. According to Andrew Smart, a human factors research scientist, apparently when we engage in idleness, all kinds of deeper recesses in the brain light up: “This ‘resting-state network’ (RSN) or ‘default-mode network (DMN),’ as it is called … comes alive when we are not doing anything.” (Autopilot, p.19).

Because these areas of the brain are concerned with memory and the unconscious – where the things we would rather not encounter generally stay buried:

“What comes into your consciousness when you are idle can often be reports from the depths of your unconscious self – and this information may not always be pleasant. Nonetheless, your brain is likely bringing it to your attention for a good reason.” (Autopilot, p. 3).

So I think he’s on to something when he asserts (from the same page above):

“Psychological research has shown that humans, especially American humans, tend to dread idleness. … Given the slightest or even specious reason to do something, people will become busy. People with too much time on their hands tend to become unhappy or bored. Yet … being idle may be the only real path toward self-knowledge.”

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Author: Victoria Stanton

Montreal-based performance artist, writer, and educator Victoria Stanton explores live action, human interaction, video, film, photography, and drawing.

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