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.

Not in a Tuscan Villa

By Nora Vasconcelos

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Have you ever wondered what it’d be like if you could live abroad for a year? John and Nancy Petralia did it, and from this question, their dream became a plan and, at the age of sixty something, they told everyone that they would be leaving their home in New Jearsey to live in Italy for a year.

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What sounded like a marvelous idea then it became true, with all the ups and downs that always come attached to reality. And all those challenges started even before they had packed.

Finding a place to live in Italy, was one of those challenges, along with fitting the dream into the real life. The romantic idea of a Tuscan Village, that came, partially from the famous movie Under the Tuscan Sun, and in part from the questions of their friends, as if they were going to rent a village, make them focused on what they actually could afford. With an appartment secured in Bologna, the dream started.

Then, the akward face of reality appeared again. The living conditions were not exactly what they had expected, and the town, although interesting, didn’t fit into the dream either. But John and Nancy didn’t give up, not even when dealing with a medical emergency abroad in a different language, made them wonder if they should come back to America. But they didn’t, on the contrary, they kept up with their plan of staying in Italy for a year to learn its language and its customs, as well as to travel around and appreciate, first hand, all the wonders that this European country has to offer to those who love art, tasty food, good wine and breathtaking landscapes.

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Redesigning their plan, the couple looked not only for a new place but also for a new city where they could be able to ride freely their bikes, mingle with more people and somehow, feel more at home while away from home.

Patience, perseverance and time worked out when they managed to move to Parma, where things finally started to fall into place. It was there, when they actually felt that their dream had come true. Now, they just had to make the most of it, and they did it. Opera shows, how to make Italian cheese experiences, Thanksgiving in a foreign country, encounters with new friends, the visit of old good friends, all of this became part of their time in Italy.

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And from all these experience, John and Nacy wrote an exceptional book which they titled Not in a Tuscan Villa, where they tell not only their experiences and describe with great detail the places they visited, but also talk about how hard they worked every day to integrate themselves into the rhythm and syle of this country, where they were actually living in, and not just visiting.

“It took us about a year to write the book and another six months for rewrites and editing changes. We belonged to a writers’ group at our local library that met every week and critiqued each others’ work. That kept us focused and gave us a goal each week.”, tells me Nancy Petralia.

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But the dream didn’t end when they came back to America, on the contrary, their year in Italy gave them a new set of dreams, plans and goals in life. Many things in the way they see life changed from their Italian experience and they’re ready to enjoy life even more. So, as Nancy says, they’re heading back to Italy soon to travel around and visit friends. It’ll be their third time back since their Italian year ended.

Their time in Italy also gave them, specially John, an idea for a possible new book, one based on the life of Giuseppe Garibaldi. For that, a trip to South America might be in their near future where they want to visit Montevideo, Uruguay, another key place in Garibaldi’s life.

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*All images courtesy of John and Nancy Petralia

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I'm part of Post A Week 2014

Notes from the inside …and some lessons learned.

and some lessons learned 😯

It’s been more than a month since lockdown started over here… where’s here? …well it’s many places in the world. But for me here is a very nice place blessed with a nice view. 🍃🌺😃

The same as many people, being indoors has been a huge challenge in which all sort of things – toughts and emotions- have to be dealt with at a surprisingly fast pace. 😣

I remember when all this started, not so long ago, even when it feels like an eternity now, one of my first toughts was ‘will I still be here when all this is over?” – Hard not to think about your own limits when all around your life has been limited…

But… got to adjust fast, missing my old normal and learning to survive my new normal.

Nowadays, I wonder what ‘normal’ would look like when all this ends… 🙈🙉🙊

So, what I’ve learned so far…

– Frustration has overcome my feelings and toughts in two different situations: needing something urgently and depending on others to deliver it home, and not being able to focus on reading.😣

– I’ve found a huge comfort on exchanging  (virtually) points of view with my friends in my hometown  and around the world.

– Virtual hugs are great! 😊

– I’ve got some relief when I read that many people everywhere can’t focus on reading either. Mainly because, yes, our brains are overwhelmed trying to solve more urgent issues. Happily, I’m enjoying reading again! 😆

– A good friend of mine has been sharing photos of trees and flowers, and that has inspired me to admire with wide open eyes all the nature that surrunds me.🌱🌾🍃

– I love listening to the birds whenever they sing.🐦🐦🐦

– I don’t regularly like listening to crickets but now I found their noisy presence somehow comforting, as a sign of normality.

– It’s the first time that I’ve felt the whole meaning of the proverbial phrase ‘you don’t know what you have until you lose it’ – I never imagined I wouldn’t be able to leave home. 😱

– Not being able to travel …anywhere …at all! That really hurts. 😢

– None of the two points above mean much when I  happen to see the amount of people who have died due to this crazy desease. Then all I can think of is how sad it is that all those lives were cut short. And I also think about their families. So much sadness around the world right now. 😭

– Life -and people- have a strange way of adjusting and moving on… 🌎

– And talking about this… I just can’t have enough of all those amazing animals that are happily exploring the empty cities and those which are enjoying immensely all that natural parks and beaches free of tourists. All these animals truly rock! 🐴

– Oh! Cooking, is so much fun.😋 Sharing it via the cyber space with friends, is a lot more fun! 💢💫😊🍕😊💨💻

– Memories of my trips are golden now, and I mean serious gold! 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

– A couple of coments I’ve heard that I carry with me all the time: “remeber that we have to take this one day at a time” 📆 … and “we can not go out of this the same way as we came in, we, as citizens of the world, have to do it a lot better next time” 😃

– Moods in the inside world go up and down and up again like the ferris wheel 🎡, sometimes like a carrousel 🎠 and some many other like a roller coaster 🎢. Life is a circus after all! 🎪

Many weeks inside are yet to come, and I constantly ask myself what it’ll be like when I’m finally able to go out freely. I  wonder what I’ll feel when I see my city for the first time in a long while… the same city that I cannot see right now… what I would feel being around a lot of people… what it’d be like to aproach someone without fear… so many questions in my mind, so many dreams and wishes waiting to be free… 😃

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The perks and perils of writing a 50,000 word novel in a month

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Ready, set, type! Maksim Kabakou/Shutterstock

 

By Sally O’Reilly, The Open University 
Lecturer in Creative Writing, The Open University

We live in a culture obsessed with speed: fast-food, Twitter, overnight celebrity, instant make-overs and cutting edge techno-gadgets. We drive too fast, desperate to get ahead literally as well as metaphorically. And when we get home we surf TV, scroll through Facebook, eat, drink and talk on the phone. Apparently, the only thing we want to slow down in the modern world is the ageing process – and it’s no surprise that our solution to that problem is a quick injection of Botox or a lunch-time facelift.

Far from being an oasis of tranquillity, the world of books is not immune to the demands of 24/7 society. Publishers – keen to get a new writer’s name on the radar – are at the very least likely to commission a book a year from each author. Some want writers to work even more quickly. Six months is seen by some as a reasonable gestation period for a genre book; three months is not unknown. (Literary writers get more leeway, but the pressures are still there. Prizes must be won; the public must be satisfied.) After all, the aim is to get the book out there, in front of readers, on Amazon.

As for other writers, with that brilliant, world-changing novel as yet unwritten, the answer is surely to write one as soon as possible. Until the thing exists in tangible form, then the dream of being a writer will never become a reality. One solution is to sign up with NaNoWriMo, a global writing project which takes place every November. Writers log in, pledge to produce 50,000 words by the end of the month – and off they go. Some fall by the wayside, but the organisers report that last year more than 300,000 reached the target: “They started the month as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors, and middle-school English teachers. They walked away novelists.”

Up to a point. Those NaNoWriMo completers have certainly written enough words to fill a novel – although a fairly short one in contemporary terms – but this is inevitably a process that privileges speed over quality. Even if it’s accepted that these 50,000 words form a work in progress, the value of writing that much that quickly is unclear.

My own experience is that writing a first draft without reflection can in itself be a strange form of evasion – you keep writing in the vain hope that by producing lots of words the problems in your narrative will resolve themselves. But sometimes it is essential to stop and think – and question. Before I completed my first novel, I began two other novels that hit the wall at 30,000 words. I fell short of NaNoWriMo’s 50,000 goal, but wrote in that spirit, churning out words against the clock, smoking furiously. (I was young then, and thought this was part of the deal.)

There are pros and cons of writing under pressure. Every writer is different, and this applies to speed of production as much as it does to style. In the “speed” corner we have George Simenon, who would have been a NaNoWriMo natural, with an average novel production time of four weeks; and John Grisham, who wrote his bestseller The Pelican Brief in 100 days. One of the most notorious writers both at and on speed was Jack Kerouac who penned On the Road in three weeks, aided by Benzedrine. The result, produced on a 120-foot scroll manuscript, prompted Truman Capote’s killer put-down: “That’s not writing, it’s typing”.

In the slow corner is Donna Tartt, whose career does not appear to have been damaged by producing a novel every decade. Then there’s Tom Wolfe, who took 11 years to write A Man in Full and J.R.R Tolkien, who began writing what was to be The Lord of the Rings in 1936 and finished in 1952. But the daddy of slow writing must be William H Gass, who took 30 years to write his masterwork, The Tunnel.

I’m not suggesting that one group is superior to the other, but it’s important to remember that along with their unique voice each writer found their natural speed. My last novel took four years to write and that seems to be my optimum pace. Some writers need to take their time. Writing a novel isn’t like going on The X Factor – itself a concept which is looking stale – and though impatience and dissatisfaction can fuel determination, they can also be a snare.

The ConversationAfter all, the writing is the only phase of a novel’s life that is ours alone. If we do find an agent, a publisher, an audience, our book belongs to other people. Just as an artist is usually more at home in a studio than a gallery, we are in our element when we are sitting at our laptop, inventing worlds. There are no quick fixes if you want to write the best book that you can. And writing isn’t about endings; it is a way of life.

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

Christmas, a time to talk about compassion

By Ian Patrick
Rubicon – Author with Fahrenheit Press
Guest Post

Thanks, Nora, for inviting me to your Christmas Blog.

I appreciate being asked. I feel very fortunate to be in the position I am and would love to use this moment to talk about compassion. At Christmas this is something we should practice more of.

I’m aware of the devastation caused in Mexico and how I felt when I heard about it. My first thoughts were about you. If you, and your family, were ok. When you write you inhabit an insular world where for a period of time your mind is elsewhere, not focussed on the present. It’s a surreal position to be in.

I started writing so that anyone who was suffering may gain a reprieve through my books. I know, when I’m having a bad day, I look forward to the chance to pick a book up and escape. The reality is, for some, there is no escape.

I can’t imagine what it must feel like to lose everything and have nothing. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be in a country separated by a wall. I lived in Berlin in the 70’s and witnessed the devastation the wall caused there.

When I was in the police, Christmas was a time of celebration but also violence and loss. Violence from domestic disturbances fuelled by alcohol and drugs. Loss from, Burglary, Robbery and Murder. It’s as if a notion of survival arises and brings out the worst in people at a time when people should come together.

This isn’t a case of bah humbug. I enjoy Christmas with my family. I feel blessed to be in a position to experience this.

As a writer my hope is that anyone who reads Rubicon over the Christmas period is afforded some pleasure. If I have achieved that then the effort has been worth it.

I’ve gone from one life of service to another. I enjoy seeing reviews where my book has had a positive impact on the readers’ experience. In the police you could see the impact your presence was making. Sometimes positive other times not so!

I would like to thank you for your support this year and everyone else who has contributed to making readers aware of Rubicon. To all those who’ve read it, Thank you. To the team at Fahrenheit Press, all those who’ve reviewed it, thank you. To me, writing is a gift and must be used positively to entertain and provoke questions for readers. I’m in a fortunate position to be able to write. I am thankful for that.

Compassion isn’t a passive act it takes practice and effort. The results are amazing though and the benefits to society immeasurable.

Wishing you and all your readers a peaceful and happy Christmas.

*You can follow Ian Patrick on Twitter

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Serene

Why We Exchange Gifts: a peep into the gift-horse’s mouth

By Trish Nicholson
Guest Post

Before being sucked under the spells of retail elves and their Christmassy shelves, let’s take a not-too-serious look at the meaning of gifts over the ages.
The proverb ‘never look a gift-horse in the mouth’ is known across Europe in languages from Icelandic to Russian, but for anyone unfamiliar with this advice, it means we should not judge the intrinsic value of a gift.    Experienced horse-dealers amongst you will know that the age and condition of a horse is gauged from its teeth: when you notice that the lavishly gift-wrapped box of chocolates your cousin sent you is nine months beyond its use-by date, you know you’ve been given a useless old nag.
It may be the thought that counts, but what, exactly, were they thinking?
In its purest form, giving is caring with no expectation of reward. It may demand equal commitment in learning to accept graciously. During a hectic working life I dashed off for fleeting visits to a favourite elderly aunt whenever I could. When the time came for me to leave, my aunt would press into my hand a package of squelchy spam sandwiches made with love to protect me from starvation on my 60-minute rail journey home. I could never stomach the sandwiches though I learnt to appreciate the gift with a full heart.
Like storytelling, gift-exchange emerged during the dawn of human history. The gift of an antelope steak given in good faith, accepted with grace, and later reciprocated with a well-knapped spear-head, created whole networks between families, clans and tribes. In time, the exchange of gifts developed into the first trade deals as the relative value of each item was arduously negotiated, but the significance was always more than economic – it created relationships based on trust. Even stories were bartered. Itinerant storytellers have long earned a night’s lodging with a good story, as Odysseus did in Homer’s Odyssey.
Barter remains important in many parts of the world. While living in Papua New Guinea I acquired my treasured collection of clay pots and shells through barter. And travelling in the Amazon, I exchanged my wellington boots for a two-metre poisoned-dart blow-pipe in a Yaguar village (a keep-sake that caused sensational hassles at every airport security check). Both transactions involved forging relationships – telling stories and learning to understand each other.

But in the same way that stories multiplied and diversified across the world, so did the forms and meanings of gift-giving.
A Viking chief was expected to be generous to his followers in dispensing loot from raiding expeditions. By gifts of gold to award valour and encourage loyalty, great leaders became known as ‘Ring Givers’. However, evidence of buried gold hoards suggests that some chiefs preferred to hide their ill-gotten gains underground – the Norse equivalent of an off-shore account. Gifts in exchange for loyalty are still a widespread practice, from the discount offered on your store loyalty card to the appointment of corporate raiders to plum jobs in government administrations.
Perhaps the most dramatic ritual gift-giving is the potlach ceremony, developed to a fine art by the Native American Kwakiutl peoples of the north-west coast. Any social or personal milestone provided an excuse for a potlach, but the biggest feasts for the greatest number of guests, the longest speeches and the most lavish gifts were preserved for the installation of a new successor to the chieftaincy. And everyone in the tribe was expected to dig deep to contribute.
Potlach was all about status. The volume of goods distributed boosted the social standing of the giver, as the value of each gift reflected the status of the recipient, and the more guests to witness the transaction the more powerful the event. To fall short in any of these calculations courted political suicide. It requires no stretch of the imagination to see all of this in world leaders’ rounds of state visits funded by hapless tax-payers, not to mention presidential inaugurations.
Gifts often involve a catch. Even Saint Nicholas’ legendary generosity to children, celebrated in the Netherlands on December 5, was conditional upon each child’s past behaviour recorded in the Big Book. The medieval tradition, where Saint Nicholas’ helpers included frightening characters representing Satan, may have been the stick accompanying the carrots. But modern Zwarte Piet is a clownish trickster throwing tiny gingerbread biscuits into the crowd like confetti. As commercial interests focus on December 25th in line with most of Europe, the devil is forgotten and smart kids claim two Christmases.
Most religions recognised the importance of gift-giving either in shared celebration, as sweeteners to the gods or as a form of wealth distribution. Christians may follow the example of the Three Kings with their Christmas presents, but festive gift-giving features also in the Jewish Hanukkah and Hindu Divali, while giving alms to the needy is a central tenet of both Islamic and Sikh faiths. Although offering a small gift is a daily occurrence for Buddhists, I had not expected to be given an apple by the abbot while visiting a monastery in Bhutan. Luckily, I always take pens and postcards as little presents when travelling and found a spare pen in my pocket to reciprocate.Exchanging gifts appears to be a universal human practice but cultural awareness is advisable. Social occasions for gift-exchange occur throughout the year in China, but in a culture where maintaining ‘face’ ranks highly, what to give, to whom, when, and exactly how much to put into the ‘little red envelope’ poses an etiquette quagmire to the unwary.
My apologies if these reflections disrupt the Christmas gift-list you had already ticked off during the summer sales.
I may be a little biased, but to be on the safe side, I’m giving everyone books this year.

Author Bio:
Trish Nicholson is a social anthropologist, author of narrative non-fiction and a former columnist. Her latest work, A Biography of Story, A Brief History of Humanity, is the only global social-history of storytelling. Trish’s other books include two travelogues: Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinea Journals, and Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon. Trish lives in New Zealand. You can follow her on Twitter @TrishaNicholson and read her articles on www.trishnicholsonswordsinthetreehouse.com where there really is a tree house.

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