Good health for writers

Although writing hardly rates as a dangerous occupation, it does carry a number of potential hazards to both physical and mental well-being.

Dangers of sitting: People who sit down for long periods are at increased risk of many disorders including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular problems, deep vein thrombosis and certain cancers.

Lack of exercise: Regular exercise – in moderation – helps to prevent a whole host of diseases including those listed above. However, it does not appear to cancel out the dangers from sitting down too long.

Lack of sunlight: Exposure to sunlight – in moderation – helps to ensure adequate an adequate level of Vitamin D which, again, is important for the prevention of many diseases.

Musculoskeletal disorders: Spending too much time typing on the keyboard can lead to RSI (repetitive strain injury). Symptoms include pain, swelling, numbness and tingling in the hands and arms. Excessive computer use can also worsen the symptoms of other musculoskeletal conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis of the hands, back pain and neck pain. While ergonomically designed chairs and desks can help to some extent, the best approach to prevention is to take frequent breaks from working at your desk, and if symptoms have already developed it is advisable to have a complete rest. Orthodox treatment would usually be with physical therapy and/or anti-inflammatory drugs. Various complementary and alternative therapies can help, for example a case of RSI which responded well to homoeopathy is described in my book Persons not Diseases.

Eye problems: There is no evidence that computer work causes permanent damage to the eyes, however it can lead to the temporary problem of ‘computer vision syndrome’.  Symptoms can include blurred or double vision, redness and irritation of the eyes, and headaches. Preventive measures include reducing glare from sun or artificial lighting on the computer screen, adjusting the brightness and font size to comfortable levels, maintaining the optimal distance between your eyes and the screen, blinking frequently, perhaps wearing special glasses for computing – and, again, taking frequent breaks.

Substance misuse: Some, though by no means all, writers have addictive tendencies and are prone to drink too much alcohol or coffee, to over-eat, to smoke heavily, or to misuse stimulants and other drugs especially when feeling stressed or blocked. Writing alone at home, unconstrained by the rules of a conventional workplace, can make it all too easy to over-indulge.

Mood disorders: Compared to the general population writers have high rates of bipolar disorder. This condition has an association with creative talent, which is a positive feature. But serious episodes of either depression or mania/hypomania can ruin the lives of sufferers and those around them and sometimes even lead to suicide, so it requires professional care.

Dangers of social isolation: Most writers prefer to work in solitude, but being alone too much is another risk factor for both physical and mental ill-health.

Many of the problems listed above can be prevented by following the deceptively simple, but often neglected, guidelines for healthy living – eating a good diet, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, learning to manage stress, maintaining supportive relationships –  and by having a good ‘work-life balance’ so that you do a variety of things each day besides writing.

Setting personal boundaries: or, writers who never say no

 

I had several writers as clients in my life coaching practice. They often raised questions about how to find enough time and energy for writing amid the other demands and distractions of life. They might have agreed to take on extra responsibilities and activities, whether work- or family-related, because they felt obliged to accept or did not know how to refuse without causing offence or risking disapproval. Many were women working from home,  and I could empathise when they described feeling tense and frustrated about having their creative flow interrupted when husband or children wanted something, a visitor came to call or it was time to get the dinner ready. Writing, more than most other activities, requires sustained periods of solitary concentration.

The answers sound simple in theory:  Reserve a dedicated space to write in, preferably a room which is not shared with anyone else. Close the door when you are working. Switch off the phone. Reserve set times for writing each day. If there is too much else happening during normal waking hours, consider getting up earlier or staying up later, though without losing too much sleep. Say no to unwelcome requests.

Before putting such new strategies into practice it is advisable to have a friendly conversation explaining them to other household members, and asking them to respect your privacy by not interrupting unnecessarily or making a lot of noise. If all goes well they may even suggest helping in other ways, perhaps by taking over some of your usual tasks at times.

Many people find it difficult to follow these recommendations because they have been taught always to put others before themselves, and never to refuse when asked to do something however unreasonable or inconvenient it may be.  As a result they may become overworked, tired and resentful, and are unable to pursue their own wishes or develop their full potential.  If they ever do decline a request, they feel guilty about it. But:

If you never say No, what is your Yes worth? Tony Neate

Overcoming this ‘people-pleasing’ mindset is not about going to the opposite extreme of ruthless selfishness, but finding a balance between the best interests of others and yourself.

Many of the Bach flower remedies, selected alone or in combination on an individual basis, can be helpful here. For example Centaury is for those who are over-eager to serve others, and Walnut for those who are being distracted from their chosen path by outside influences.  For details about these and other remedies please visit the Bach centre website.

Not all distractions from writing are external ones. If you are finding it hard to focus because of intrusive worries or wandering thoughts, or are continually being tempted to check your emails or get another cup of coffee, you need to set firmer boundaries for yourself.