This blog from out HWBI Ninja, Rob Young and co-founder Su, considers how writing can boost your health and wellbeing.
Two perspectives – writing to improve health and wellbeing and writing to give voice and connect.
Next time that you feel under pressure or stressed it might be better to reach for the pen than reaching for the digital device. The digital device may be a great displacement activity but may not be as good for your health and wellbeing. There is a growing body of evidence that shows that writing can:
- Encourage mindfulness
- Help you to find perspective on difficult issues
- Provide an opportunity for storytelling for self-exploration
- Foster clarity and insight
- Releases creative potential
- Release anxiety or stress
- Expand your creative abilities and work through blocks
A study by Robinson (2000) explores the connections between writing and wellbeing. He discovered a number of studies that demonstrated how writing can have positive psychological and clinical benefits. One study Robinson referenced, (Smyth, Stone et al 1999) found that participants who were asked to write about stressful life experiences for 3 consecutive days for a week reported 47% improvement in their clinical symptoms verses a control group who were asked to write about their general plans for the day, this group reported a 24% improvement. Robinson goes on to explore if the quality of writing is also important….. perhaps for another blog in the future.
Our Super HWBInspiration Ninja, Rob Young has brought his thoughts and experience of writing, not just for health and wellbeing, but also to give voice and communicate complex and often difficult subject matter. He helps service users, clinicians and leaders find ways to communicated to engage, connect and no doubt to heal. What follows is Rob’s account and hope you enjoy and take inspiration.
What good is a writer? By Rob Young
To answer that question, we must first ask ourselves, what writing is and more importantly, what it isn’t.
The ability to write is not a gift from on-high, it can be learned. I have taught the craft of writing to a truly diverse range of participants from heart surgeons to ‘tower block kids’ some of whom were illiterate (the kids, that is!) yet their stories were sublime.
Writing is not something you take up when you retire. We do it every day, in texts, emails, notes, reports and so on. Every time we speak, we are telling someone a story, yet we never learn the craft.
Writing is not just a hobby, a frivolous add-on once the ‘real work’ is done. It is our most efficient way of communicating what it is to be human. We can never truly relate to another person’s experience because even if we both stare at the same view; what we see is unique. The best that we can do is relate with the generic human condition and that is… a struggle.
We like to watch people struggle; it is how we learn to survive. From folk tales to Hollywood, lectures to books, the same format applies: the protagonist is dealt a problem, they investigate it, then find a solution. The old joke being, that in healthcare research, you don’t find an answer, you find ten more questions, but the basic format remains: we fail, we learn, we “grow some resilience”.
We watch our heroes fail and flounder, as they search for innovative ways to battle their demons. If their enemy is huge, they use speed. If their enemy is fast, they use stealth. And so on. They try, fail then try something else until they succeed. Time and time again its leftfield-thinking that saves the day. This valuable lesson is burned upon our retina as we all spend approximately 2 years of our lives watching movies, so the concept of innovation is embedded deep within our psyche. It is there for a reason, to help us survive.
As a writer, my ‘day job’ is helping people to communicate. The vast majority of my clients are intelligent, articulate professionals who are fluent in their craft. So why do they need me?
The questions they ask are often simple:
“Why don’t people come to my meetings?”
“Why is my PowerPoint so dull?”
“My specialist subject makes people wince but seriously, what can I do?”
Invariably, the answer lies with a fresh point of view.
Let’s take a look at the challenge. How is your meeting advertised? On what format? What is the hook? What will I gain from attending? These are all reasonable questions that require a perky response. If one way doesn’t work, then let’s try another. That’s all there is to it. We try, we fail, we try something else.
We have all sat through “Death by PowerPoint”, that sleep-inducing slideshow full of tiny text, meaningless pie-charts and 1980’s Clip Art, so please, let’s not do that. Let’s do something better.
What I find particularly interesting is the third question, because it is important. There are some issues in healthcare that are so dark, our natural response is to flinch, withdraw and ‘change channels’. It is understandable but it also a dangerous one because before we can even begin to solve the issue, we must open up a conversation. The challenge here is how to welcome people into a world that they find abhorrent.
Here are two examples of ways I’ve been able to help:
I met a clinician who did wonderful work helping victims of Female Genital Mutilation. Whenever she presented at conference, the audience were reticent, bracing themselves for an hour of upset and gore, while some did not attend at all.
The traditional way to approach this subject is to focus on the condition. We decided to change that view. Working with the clinician, we refocussed her presentation to pay tribute to the shy, fragile women who she treats every day. We told the story in their voices, not ours. Excerpts of verbatim text were read from behind a hospital screen. The images we revealed were of crisp white cotton sheets that spoke of innocence and dignity. In everything we did, we did not once mention anything dark until humanity had been given the priority it deserved.
The subsequent performance reduced many veteran clinicians to tears and post-talk, the doctor was surrounded by many admirers praising her work. Though my part was minimal, I felt an immense sense of pride that we had shown respect for the patients, the work and the audience in a new and innovative way.
Helping people to connect
Perhaps the greatest challenge I have faced as a writer was to communicate the concept of pain. It is something that you cannot see, hear, examine or compare as every pain is unique.
Professor Bernie Carter is a former Great Ormond Street nurse who has devoted her life to helping children with chronic complex pain issues. It is a subject so dark that it makes you wince just to think of it, so to open up a conversation is a challenge in itself.
As the concept of pain is so universal, we decided to concentrate on one particular moment in time – when a child with chronic complex pain is brought into A&E. In this moment, three separate languages come into play: the informed language of the clinician, the silence or scream of the child and her mother who speaks in metaphor, “She’s like a rabbit in the headlights / I can see the pain in her eyes”. The fact that these three language styles almost, but don’t quite connect is as much of an issue about communication as it is about healthcare.
Together, we looked at this moment in time from a plethora of viewpoints, from families to clinicians, charity workers to theologians, we even worked with a contortionist. We recorded their voices and played them via rotating mobiles in a huge, dark room, so the voices swirled above your head, almost but never quite connecting. We premiered our work in a theatre, not a conference, where again, many people were reduced to tears, not because we were gunning for sympathy but the fact that they had ‘got it’. They understood the challenge and agreed, wholeheartedly, that something must be done.
It is a personal bugbear of mine that many people raise awareness without acting upon it. I was determined that would not be the case with our pain project. Based upon the success of our presentation, we were able to acquire Arts Council funding to tour pain conferences as far afield as South Africa. We created downloadable brochures and the animation below:
What strikes me about the project, looking back upon it now, is another axis point, another moment in time – the one where art meets science, when the heart of the clinician meets the brain of the artist to clash, flirt and tango. It is a thrilling moment in time when magical things can happen.
I have worked with Su and Claire (my HWBInspiration Ninja colleagues) for many years now and have always been impressed by the fact that they see the arts as a liberating force, in healthcare and beyond. They value the role that the arts can play in communicating issues from management to research, leadership to personal empowerment. The stories they tell are told in a voice that is warm, welcoming and accessible to all and in today’s noisy world, but their voice rings true as clear and authentic. If you have a challenge, they can help.
Thank you for reading and good luck in telling your story.
To contact or follow Rob
Robinson, M. Writing well: health and the power to make images. Journal of Medical Ethics: Medical Humanities. 2000: Vol 26. p79-84.
Smyth JM, Stone AA, Hurewitz A, Kael A. Effects of writing about stressful experiences on symptom reduction in patients with asthma or rheumatoid arthritis. Journal of the American Medical Association 1999;281:1304-9.
HWBInspiration co-founders, Su & Claire, are grateful to our Associate HWBI Ninjas for sharing their knowledge, skill and insights.