Writing can improve mental health – here’s how

Any kind of writing can help. Yulia Grigoryeva/ Shutterstock

Christina Thatcher, Cardiff Metropolitan University

Ernest Hemingway famously said that writers should “write hard and clear about what hurts”. Although Hemingway may not have known it at the time, research has now shown that writing about “what hurts” can help improve our mental health.

There are more than 200 studies that show the positive effect of writing on mental health. But while the psychological benefits are consistent for many people, researchers don’t completely agree on why or how writing helps.

One theory suggests that bottling up emotions can lead to psychological distress. It stands to reason, then, that writing might increase mental health because it offers a safe, confidential and free way to disclose emotions that were previously bottled up.

However, recent studies have begun to show how an increase in self-awareness, rather than simply disclosing emotions, could be the key to these improvements in mental health.

In essence, self-awareness is being able to turn your attention inward towards the self. By turning our attention inward, we can become more aware of our traits, behaviour, feelings, beliefs, values and motivations.

Research suggests that becoming more self-aware can be beneficial in a variety of ways. It can increase our confidence and encourage us to be more accepting of others. It can lead to higher job satisfaction and push us to become more effective leaders. It can also help us to exercise more self-control and make better decisions aligned with our long-term goals.

Self-awareness is a spectrum and, with practice, we can all improve. Writing might be particularly helpful in increasing self-awareness because it can be practised daily. Rereading our writing can also give us a deeper insight into our thoughts, feelings, behaviour and beliefs.

Here are three types of writing which can improve your self-awareness and, in turn, your mental health:

Expressive writing

Expressive writing is often used in therapeutic settings where people are asked to write about their thoughts and feelings related to a stressful life event. This type of writing aims to help emotionally process something difficult.

Research shows that expressive writing can enhance self-awareness, ultimately decreasing depressive symptoms, anxious thoughts and perceived stress.

Reflective writing

Reflective writing is regularly used in professional settings, often as a way to help nurses, doctors, teachers, psychologists and social workers become more effective at their jobs. Reflective writing aims to give people a way to assess their beliefs and actions explicitly for learning and development.

Woman pauses to look out the window while she writes in a notebook.
Reflective writing asks the person to be open and curious. WAYHOME studio/ Shutterstock

Writing reflectively requires a person to ask themselves questions and continuously be open, curious and analytical. It can increase self-awareness by helping people learn from their experiences and interactions. This can improve professional and personal relationships as well as work performance, which are key indicators of good mental health.

Creative writing

Poems, short stories, novellas and novels are all considered forms of creative writing. Usually, creative writing employs the imagination as well as, or instead of, memory, and uses literary devices like imagery and metaphor to convey meaning.

Writing creatively offers a unique way to explore thoughts, feelings, ideas and beliefs. For instance, you could write a science fiction novel that represents your concerns about climate change or a children’s story that speaks to your beliefs about friendship. You could even write a poem from the perspective of an owl as a way to represent your insomnia.

Writing creatively about challenging experiences, like grief, can also offer a way to communicate to others something which you feel is too complicated or difficult to say directly.

Creative writing encourages people to choose their words, metaphors and images in a way that really captures what they’re trying to convey. This creative decision-making can lead to increased self-awareness and self-esteem as well as improved mental health.

Writing for self-awareness

Self-awareness is a key component for good mental health and writing is a great place to start.

Why not take some time to write down your feelings about a particularly stressful event that has happened during the pandemic? Or reflect on a difficult work situation from the last year and consider what you have learned from it?

If you prefer to do something more creative, then try responding to this prompt by writing a poem or story:

Think about the ways your home reveals the moment we are currently in. Is your pantry packed with flour? Do you have new objects or pets in your home to stave off loneliness or boredom? What you can see from your window that reveals something about this historic moment?

Each of these writing prompts will give you a chance to reflect on this past year, ask yourself important questions, and make creative choices. Spending just 15 minutes doing this may give you an opportunity to become more self-aware – which could lead to improvements in your mental health.

Christina Thatcher, Creative Writing Lecturer, Cardiff Metropolitan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Reading with your children: proper books vs tablets

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Opal Eyes/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

By Nicola Yuill, University of Sussex

Most of us have an opinion about whether we prefer reading on screen or paper: but what difference does it make for children? The truth is that technology is now encountered from babyhood. Anecdotes abound of toddlers swiping their fingers across paper rather than turning the page, while parents and teachers express their fear of screen addiction as tablets introduce new distractions as well as new attractions for young readers. The Conversation

Ofcom figures tell us that children’s screen use rises sharply towards the end of primary school (from age seven to 11) and in the same period, book-reading drops. Increasing screen use is a reality, but does it contribute to a loss of interest in reading, and does reading from a screen provide the same experience as the feel of reading on paper?

We looked at this in our research on shared reading. This has been a neglected topic even though it is clearly a common context for children when they read at home. It might be their regular homework reading of a book from school, or a parent reading them a favourite bedtime story.

Warming up

We asked 24 mothers and their seven to nine-year-old children to take turns – mother reading or child reading – with popular fiction books on paper, and on a tablet. They read Barry Loser: I am not a Loser by Jim Smith and You’re a Bad Man, Mr Gum by Andy Stanton. We found that the children’s memory for the descriptions and narratives showed no difference between the two media. But that’s not the whole story.

The interactions of parent and child were found to be different in the independent ratings from video observation of the study. When they read from paper rather than a screen, there was a significant increase in the warmth of the parent/child interactions: more laughter, more smiling, more shows of affection.

It may be that this is largely down to the simple physical positioning of the parent and child when using the different media, as well as their cultural meaning. When children were reading from a screen, they tended to hold the tablet in a head-down position, typical of the way they would use the device for solo activities such as one-player games or web-browsing.

This meant that the parents had to “shoulder-surf” in order to share visual attention. In contrast, when parents read to their children on paper, they often held the book out to support shared visual engagement, tucking the child cosily under their arms. Some children just listened without trying to see the book, but instead curled themselves up comfortably on the sofa.

Paper or pixels?
Megan Trace/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Keep taking the tablets?

Our research joins a growing list of studies comparing paper and e-books, but the answer isn’t a simple one. Shared reading is different to reading alone, for a start. And we may be interested in whether screen or paper makes a difference in how children learn to read, to understand, and enjoy reading. In short there are multiple perspectives to consider – developmental, educational, literary and technological – if we are to decide which medium is preferable.

Most studies have compared children at the earliest stages of reading, using paper books, e-books with audio and dictionary support to help less-skilled readers, and so-called “enhanced” e-books with multimedia, activities, hotspots and games.

Text with audio support helps children to decode text, and multimedia can keep a reluctant reader engaged for longer, so a good e-book can indeed be as good as an adult reading a paper book with their child. But we don’t yet have long-term studies to tell us whether constant provision of audio might prevent children developing ways of unpicking the code of written language themselves.

They think I’m reading; I’m playing Candy Crush.
George Rudy/Shutterstock

Re-design for life

There is also increasing evidence that adding multimedia and games can quickly get distracting: one study found that young children spent almost half their time playing games in enhanced e-books, and therefore they read, remembered and understood little of the story itself. But there is plenty of guidance for e-book developers on the what, where and how much of designing multimedia texts.

And that brings us back to perhaps the defining conclusion from our own study. Books versus screens is not a simple either/or – children don’t read books in a cultural vacuum and we can’t approach the topic just from a single academic field. Books are just books, with a single typical use, but screens have many uses, and currently most of these uses are designed round a single user, even if that user is interacting with others remotely.

We believe that designers could think more about how such technology can be designed for sharing, and this is especially true for reading, which starts, and ideally continues, as a shared activity in the context of close long-term family relationships. Book Trust figures report a drop from 86% of parents reading with their five-year-olds to just 38% with 11-year olds. There is a possibility that the clever redesign of e-books and tablets might just slow that trend.

Nicola Yuill, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, University of Sussex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Sharing the love for jazz with little kids

By Nora Vasconcelos

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A little while ago, while listening to a Jazz concert, I found myself quite happy to see that there were many children around.

As the concert advanced, one little boy, about 4 years old, started to dance following the enjoyable notes that came from the instruments played by the musicians on the stage. At some point the little kid lost his balance and found some support on my chair.

I smiled at him and helped him to regain his balance and cheered him up to continue dancing, as his dad looked happy I was encouraging his little son.

This experience made me realize how important it’s for new generations not only to get to know the Jazz and Big Bands classics from the Golden Age, but also to enjoy them.

Wondering what else it could be done to share with little children the love for Jazz, apart from taking them to live concerts and playing jazz music to them, I came across with a wonderful book called Who was Louis Armstrong?, by Yona Zeldis McDonough, and illustrated by John O’Brien.

The edition, designed to be read by children, tells the story of Louis Armstrong, since he was a little boy growing up in New Orleans, from the time he sold newspapers in the streets to help his family out, until the time he found his first cornet in a pawn shop.

Presented with lots of illustrations and a big nice font, the story continues up to the times when Armstrong played in Chicago and New York, along with the good and the bad times.

The books also includes fun materials that talk about the history and development of Jazz in the United States, the interaction between Steamboats and Jazz, the several influences that have become part of this music as well as the main instruments that form part of it, and some popular terms.

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Happy with my book, I got even happier when I learned, some time later, that Chris Raschka, writer and illustrator, has also designed and published some children’s books with which he inspires very young readers to get to know the life and work of jazz musicians with titles such as Charlie Parker played Be Bop, Mysterious Thelonious, John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, and The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra.

Some other children’s books that talk about jazz musicians are Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra and Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa by Andrea Davis Pinkney.

With this, my hopes are that more are more kids will grow up learning about Jazz and ejoying its joyful melodies, which hopefully will bring happines to their lives and to all of those who will happen to be around. And who knows, may be, in the future, these young readers might become the next Jazz starts!

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