Wellbeing for writers
Support and advice from our wellbeing ambassador Muriel Cooper.
To support our members and community navigate COVID-19 lockdown and restrictions, we appointed a Wellbeing Ambassador to guide us through.
Thanks to Psychologist Muriel Cooper of The Talking Room https://www.talkingroom.com.au/ for sharing these insights and suggestions for our mindfulness and wellbeing during these changing times.
We could all do with a comforting check-in during these times, and Muriel’s background means she’s the perfect ambassador for the collective wellness of our scribe tribe.
Not only is Muriel a talented member of Peninsula Writers’ Club, but she’s been a respected Australian prime time talk radio host and is a fully registered psychologist in Mornington, specialising in Stress, Anxiety and Depression.
Muriel specialises in Stress, Anxiety and Depression (the SAD cycle), and offers therapy for most psychological and emotional problems using Cognitive Behaviour Therapy.
We are grateful for her support. Please enjoy Muriel’s articles that we have shared each week on our Facebook page.
Stress and the writer’s brain.
If you’re wondering why your brain isn’t working as well during lockdown, you might guess that it’s because of stress, which is inevitable during such a tumultuous time, but you might not actually know what’s going on in there.
Stress chemicals cross the blood-brain barrier and get into your brain; a bit like alcohol but not as pleasant. Like alcohol, substances like adrenalin and cortisol have significant effects on how we think and remember, and subsequently on our ability to make decisions.
All these things are vital in everyday life but especially relevant to the writer. When you sit down to write during stressful times, do not get stressed if your brain doesn’t work as well as it usually does. This is secondary stress (stressed about being stressed) and creates an even more ‘fuzzy brain’ as I call it.
Take as many deep, full chest breaths as it takes to calm yourself. Then write. If you’re still having ‘fuzzy brain’, take a short break and think of all the ways you could immediately reduce your stress bucket, like meditative breathing, or just making a cup of tea.
Are you paying attention to your overall wellbeing, like having a routine, and getting adequate rest, relaxation and exercise? Most of all, don’t get frustrated with ourself and don’t push yourself. As I said, this just makes more stress.
Be kind to yourself. Next time, ‘The writer’s gratitude exercise.’
Is your writing thriving during lockdown?
Are you one of those writers who are thriving during lockdown and enjoying the quiet time to write and the lack of pressure to socialize? You might even be finding your productivity increasing as you’re able to focus more on your writing without the distractions of everyday life.
Here’s a couple of things to bear in mind for when life goes back to normal.
First, realise that this could set a precedent for a new normal for you. You might want to consider redefining your social boundaries in future. Don’t feel you have to say yes to every invitation. Some social contact is obligatory, visiting parents for example. But you might even consider setting tighter boundaries around this, particularly if these visits are stressful.
Second, also understand that social contact is a need and in resetting those boundaries, you don’t lose sight of the importance of honing the social skills necessary to confidently make your way around in society. Social avoidance coping, although creatively handy, can become habitual and cause loneliness and isolation down the track.
In the meantime, enjoy the quiet time afforded by the lockdown and happy writing.
Writers sit up for mental and physical health
How often do you find yourself slumping over your desk, either because gravity is winning, or because you’re tired or feel creatively spent?
Do you notice your posture at all? If someone secretively took a picture of you, what would it reveal? An exclamation mark, or a question mark?
We know that posture is important for the health of our spine, but what isn’t as well known is its effect on our mood and mental health.
Slumping is a gesture of submission and defeat. By minimising ourselves, we are making ourselves a smaller target for predators.
This is not conducive to creativity or to our feelings of wellbeing.
A simple remedy is the manubrium lift. The manubrium is the cleft between your collarbones. Locate it, and lift it toward the ceiling. Your spine will automatically straighten. Get into the habit of checking your posture and lifting your manubrium. Your spine, your mood and your creativity will thank you for it.
To nap, or not to nap
Now that many of us are working from home, it’s easier to succumb to a nap during the day, but some have revealed to me that they feel guilty for doing it. Let me reassure you.
Forty percent of Australians are sleep deprived. This causes physical accidents (more accidents occur around the home than anywhere else). It causes mental and emotional unwellness. Sleep deprivation is also a major cause of loss of productivity and accidents at work.
8 hours of sleep is still the gold standard, but how many of us get 8 hours? A 20 to 30 minute nap during the day makes up for that only slightly, but it does help and we wake refreshed. Our creativity and ability to write is also refreshed.
But That refreshment can be marred by feelings of guilt. So don’t feel guilty about taking a nap, enjoy it. The statistics are on your side.
(According to Business Insider “4 out of 10 Australians are sleep deprived. Inadequate sleep is a major health and safety hazard that costs Australia $66 billion a year and contributes to the death of many, the latest research has found.”)
Recently I talked about procrastination, but motivation is something else again. The lockdown has dragged on and a generalised fatigue has settled on Victoria like a damp, smelly blanket. There’s a sense of being drained and motivated even to do pleasant things, like taking a walk, has waned for many.
The return of warmer weather has made a difference, but if you’re still feeling generally unmotivated, here’s few pointers.
Be aware of not ruminating on the negative. It will make your brain risk averse and you will avoid anything that takers energy, or that that is not routine. Remember the brain is set for survival.
Invent something to look forward to every day; a phone call with a friend, or an appointment with a great book at lunchtime.
As in procrastination, think positively about your chores, work or caring. Don’t start your morning sentence with ‘Oh no!’, or ‘Oh God, not that thing I have to do today!’ Look on responsibilities with equanimity. Let the sentence start with ‘I’ll be happy when I get that thing done.’
When you wake in the morning, look up into the sky and get a dose of blue light therapy. Even if it’s cloudy, it switches off your melatonin, perks you up and gives you more energy to start the day.
Vitamin B and C induces energy, as do coffee and tea – great natural substances to perk you up. Take the time to enjoy your cuppa, and while you do:
Start the day as you end it, by writing down three things you are grateful for, or are looking forward to in the day.
Just pick one thing from your to do list. When you get it done, give yourself a big pat on the back. Then pick one more thing… or not, if you don’t have to. Go with the flow if you don’t have deadlines.
And if, despite all that you can’t get motivated, don’t beat yourself up Have a little self-compassion and give yourself a hug.
Thanks again Muriel. That’s a great way to start our writing week
Don’t be too eager for the end of the story
As we approach the end of lockdown and liberation, many of us are aware of the silver lining this period of upheaval can bring. An appreciation of small things, the treasures of being with family and friends, and rediscovering of old pastimes. We have not only learned things along the way, but often enjoyed them. It reminds us to appreciate the journey, as much as we long for the ending.
Stories can be like this. As readers, we can’t wait to finish…to find out what happens. We race through the pages (especially of thrillers) in a desperate pursuit of the ending.
As writers, we are well aware of the effort required to fill the space between the beginning and the ending, otherwise literature might consist only of first and last chapters. “It was a dark and stormy night.” “The butler did it”. That makes for a boring story.
It’s the part in between that makes it interesting. Let’s take the time to enjoy that, and not thumb through our days to get to the end, even though some of those pages might be testing, and hurtful. Take the time to live life and to write your story in full.
What happens next?
What happens next is at the heart of every story, fiction, or non-fiction. It’s what we’re all wondering about the story we’re in at the moment.
Caught in a time warp, we’re getting through each day, not knowing when the story will end, let alone when, and how. There is an atmosphere of dread which, whether we’re aware of it or not, is affecting us all.
It’s timely to remind ourselves of the writer’s promise of a happy ending. The heroes see it through and although there may be losses along the way, there are also gains.
This is true of all momentous moments in history. They all come to an end, so will this one. The time passes, and we survive.
Don’t forget the writer’s promise.
The ending can change
The evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar tells us that humans invented stories to help us cope with the stress of our increasingly large population groups.
We told stories to pass on knowledge, to entertain ourselves, to channel our emotions – make us laugh, or cry. Stories are still serving these same functions today.
More recently in our creative history, we have developed stories with endings that can change. My husband is writing a interactive novel where, at different points in the narrative, the reader can choose a different direction for the hero and the story.
In narrative therapy, we encourage the client to envision and choose different endings for their story that are positive and empowering.
We are at this point on our story – the one where we can choose a different path and a different ending, and though it might not seem so at times, we always have a choice. Perhaps the outcome can’t be changed, but how we respond to it and think about it, can.
How would you prefer this story to end?
Why walking is good for writers
I recently wrote an article for my website on why it’s good for us to do nothing and what doing nothing actually means. For me, it’s a activity that produces nothing, in and of itself. For example meditating, or walking, in and of themselves, produce nothing, but can result in increased productivity, especially for writers.
Creative thinking improves while a person is walking and shortly thereafter, according to a study co-authored by Marily Oppezzo , a Stanford doctoral graduate in educational psychology, and Daniel Schwartz , a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education . The study found that walking indoors or outdoors similarly boosted creative inspiration. Many people claim they do their best thinking while walking. A new study finds that walking indeed boosts creative inspiration. walking itself, and not the environment, was the main factor. Across the board, creativity levels were consistently and significantly higher for those walking compared to those sitting.
So if you’re short of inspiration, get out and walk. It will not only give your creativity a boost, but improve your physical health as well. It’s mild cardio effects are good for the heart, and anything that’s good for the heart is also good for the brain.
The gratitude exercise and the writer.
The gratitude exercise has almost become a cliche and as a result, people may shy away from it. This is a shame because we know counting the things we are grateful for makes physical changes in the brain. Forming stronger positive neural pathways leads the brain away from worry and negativity.
For writers, the worry and negativity often center around confidence, the ability to be productive, and a concern that what we are writing isn’t good enough. This can be a recipe for self doubt and procrastination. But how can being grateful help us avoid these traps? By being grateful for the many things that enable us to write at all.
I respectfully submit my Gratitude Exercise for Writers.
(You’ll notice there are many superlatives here. They add emotional tone to the exercise which helps the brain to fire and wire those positive neural pathways.)
‘I’m immensely grateful for my education, a tremendous gift that gave me the tools to write.
I’m so grateful to the hundreds of generations before me that constantly invented new words to describe our amazing planet and its people.
To my creative, intuitive brain, I’m so thankful for the inspirations you send me, especially if I allow myself quiet time to let you speak.
I’ll be forever grateful to the family and friends who support and encourage me.
I’m tremendously grateful to live in a beautiful environment that inspires me every day.’
You might like to continue the exercise on the comments below.
Enjoy this splendid day.
When you question whether it’s worthwhile
Even the most enthusiastic and dedicated writer can have doubts. Writing can not only be lonely but lacking in reward, both artistic and monetary. We spend many hours plugging away at a poem or a manuscript, only to find no audience, let alone one that wants to pay money for it. That’s why belonging to the Peninsula Writer’s Club is so important, as well as other writer’s organisations.
It’s easy to get discouraged, so here’s a way of thinking that takes the impact of our art to another level, and that is its impact on society. I don’t just mean well known writers or media commentators, their impact is well known, but the efforts of everyone who sits down to put words on paper. Every writer who does this is making a contribution to the artistic life of the community. Whether your work is read by everyone or no one but your friends or family, your writing works as a conduit for bringing society to life, for pointing out our issues, as well as our joys, and for leaving a record of life in our times.
In storytelling, we portray humanity through the wellspring of our unconscious, re-interpreting ancient archetypes and themes, Even writing about history is still a reflection of how we see the past from the viewpoint of today.
C.G. Jung said in his paper ‘Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry’
“That is the secret of great art, and of its effect upon us. The creative process, so far as we are able to follow it at all, consists in the unconscious activation of an archetypal image, and in elaborating and shaping this image into the finished work. By giving it shape, the artist translates it into the language of the present, and so makes it possible for us to find our way back to the deepest springs of life. Therein lies the social significance of art: it is constantly at work educating the spirit of the age, conjuring up the forms in which the age is most lacking.”
Always remember that every time you create, you are making a contribution, not only to your own wellbeing, but to society as a whole.
The writer and the long weekend
To the writer, the benefits of long weekends can be many. They’re an opportunity for extra time to write, to engage in activities like writers festivals and go on writer’s retreat weekends.
As we slowly come out of lockdown this long weekend seems strange for many of us who’ve lost sight of weekends altogether, as one day blurs into another. You might be missing being in the physical company of other writers (It’s not the same on Zoom), or feel your writing rhythm has been interrupted by the pandemic. Activities you might usually do have slipped away. Don’t despair, remember everything is temporary. Have faith that equilibrium will be restored and you’ll be back to your usual writing self. If you are managing to be productive and have had some writing time this weekend, that’s great. If not, don’t beat yourself up.
Let’s remember that long weekends are also an opportunity to rest and de-stress, perhaps not to write at all. To catch up with friends and family, or just have some quiet time. No not more quiet time I hear you say, I’ve had too much! Or alternatively yes, I’ve been so overwhelmed by everything during lockdown all I want is peace and quiet.
Whatever your needs are, I hope they’re being met by this long weekend. We can look forward to future holidays and perhaps, as writers, to make a commitment to making the most of them.
Writers and nature
Now that we’re able to get out and about more, our emphasis might be socializing. However, for writers, leaving the house often means not people, but nature. There’s a good reason for that. I’ve already spoken about the connection between walking and creativity. For many of us, walking relieves stress too, and stress can be a barrier to the creative brain. But there’s more.
Many writers draw inspiration from nature for good reason.
Japanese researchers have found that even a 15 minute visit in nature causes measurable changes in physiology, including a 15% drop in the stress hormone cortisol and a 2% drop in blood pressure. Less stress can mean more creative flow, a great reason to connect with nature.
It’s also the quiet. Except for waves on the shore or murmurings in the trees, the quiet is soothing and relaxing for the brain, ceasing the chatter and allowing our creative thoughts to come through.
A short, or long visit to a beautiful part of the world, whether it’s Red Hill, or sitting the beach, is a wonderful investment in our creative energy.
So let’s get out there and commune with nature. It’s not only good for our writing, but good for us as a whole.
See you under a tree.
Writing for wellbeing
Whatever kind of writing you do, whether it’s fiction, non- fiction, historical, or something in between, we can all benefit from trying a different kind of writing.
Journal writing is the number one alternative. If you don’t already keep one, consider it but only as a way to get your thoughts in order and problem solve worries, but also to record noteworthy events of the day that you might be able to include in your other writing. Before bed or first thing in the morning are the best times for journal writing. It’s also a good way to recite your gratitude exercise. It’s a proven way not only to increase your wellbeing, but your creativity too.
Another twist is to try a different genre. If you write non fiction, try a short story or Microfiction, if you’re a fiction writer try poetry (this is one of the most stimulating things I’ve enjoyed by being a member of the Peninsula Writer’s Club).
Being adventurous as a writer doesn’t mean you abandon your style or form, it means trying a creative alternative. You might find a new metier, or at the very least, have fun.
See you on the other side.
Writers stand up!
You’re on a roll. The words fly onto the page. Conversely, you sit at your desk, staring at the screen trying to get creative. Or you’re fascinated by the subject you’re researching and can’t seem to stop.
Whether the writing is happening, or not, suddenly you look at the clock and an hour, or two or three have gone by. You realize you’re thirsty and you desperately need to go to the toilet.
You’ve lost track of time.
It’s easily done, and it’s not good for you. Writing is a sedentary activity and as ‘they’ say, sitting is the new smoking.
Take care to get up regularly and move. Put a timer on. Stretch, walk around, put the kettle on. Resist the temptation to think it will spoil your creative flow. That will come back, believe me.
Also take time to look away from your screen and do some horizon gazing. This is very restful for the eyes.
Writing is good for the soul, but it can be hell on that body. So stand up!
See you walking around the block.
The benefits of being an optimistic writer
Being a optimist costs you nothing.
Being a pessimist could cost you your writing and possibly your health. Pessimism causes worry, worry causes stress, stress affects your writing.
Pessimism erodes your self confidence and may make you quit the thing you love because you’re not succeeding (atm anyway).
Deflect pessimism and adopt optimism.
“But that’s just the way I am?” do I hear you say? “How can I change?” Don’t be downhearted. You can cultivate optimism. Martin Seligman founded the positive psychology movement with his ground breaking work, culminating in the best-selling book ‘Learned Optimism’. Here are his three ‘P’s’
Permanence: Optimistic people believe bad events to be more temporary than permanent, so they’re more resilient. Remember “It will pass.”
Pervasiveness: Optimistic people compartmentalize helplessness, whereas pessimistic people assume that failure in one area of life means failure in life as a whole.
Personalization: Optimists blame bad events on causes outside of themselves, whereas pessimists blame themselves for events that occur.
So, cultivate optimism, especially in these challenging times. It’s but only good for your writing, it’s good for you.
Your space, your right
Now we’re in lockdown again we’re having to share our space again, when, as writers, our space is crucial to our enjoyment of our craft and our productivity.
But, it seems selfish to want our own space when others needs seem so much more important. Children doing homework, others having to work from home.
If we give up our own needs (and writing is a need, for me anyway) to facilitate the needs of others, this can end in resentment, frustration and anxiety.
Even in small spaces we can negotiate a corner, an end of the kitchen table. Even in a busy day we can negotiate with ourselves, or others, a block of time to enjoy our craft of writing. For some of its it’s a job, for others a recreation, for all of us it’s therapy.
Be gently assertive with yourself and others that you deserve your space and time to write.
Writers beware of bad news
Is it always a good idea for writers to watch the news?
Many famous writers say they watch and read the news to get ideas and inspiration for stories. But we need to be careful about what we expose ourselves to at times like this when the news is more negative than, perhaps, its ever been.
Oh, there have been worse times in history, but never have they been made obvious to us in such pervasive and startlingly obvious ways. Modern media brings bad news in loud, living colour into our homes, but more importantly for our wellbeing, into our heads.
If you’re a journalist and commentator, as I was for a long time, it’s your job to expose yourself to bad news. But as writers of most other genres, limiting your exposure to news media can be emotional self-defence, keeping your stress down and allowing your creativity to flourish.
So be careful what you watch and read.
Don’t be shy
Overcoming the vulnerability of putting yourself out there as a writer.
Confidence is built on previous successes but they don’t have to be huge or in a public space.
They can be the success of finishing a page or a chapter, of reading back over a paragraph and feeling satisfied that you’ve produced something really good.
Reading the writing of those who seem so much better at it than you can be crushing. “I’ll never be a good as that” you say, putting down your pen or closing the laptop.
Instead of judging yourself, celebrate the other writers’ talent and success. They have their voice, you have yours. Your voice is unique and every voice is worth hearing.
The Peninsula Writers Club Closed Facebook member page (and other like spaces) is a safe space to share your voice with others without criticism or judgement. Having said that, if you would like constructive feedback, members are always happy to review and edit your work via email or private message.
So, don’t be shy. Your contributions are always valued.