A question I am frequently asked is in respect to how I find time to write as well as run a busy medical practice. Well, I could claim that it is an illness. After all, the Roman satirist, Juvenal, once proclaimed that ‘many suffer from the incurable disease of writing, and it becomes chronic in their sick minds’.
However, the answer is that for me writing is not an illness, but is therapeutic. I am not alone in that sentiment, as many other writers will tell you something similar. Writing is a good way to wake up the brain in the mornings, and is a relaxing way to unwind at the end of a busy day or week. Henri Stendhal, a French novelist, once declared that ‘for those who have tasted the profound activity of writing, reading is no more than a secondary pleasure’; so I apologise to all those readers who are presently not having as much fun reading this column as I had writing it. You are, nonetheless, in good company. Winnie-the-Pooh’s friend, Eeyore, might have agreed with you, stating ‘this writing business – pencils and what-not; over-rated, if you ask me. Silly stuff. Nothing in it.’
There is, however, a serious message behind today’s column. Research has shown that writing can indeed be therapeutic in many different conditions, especially when stress is an underlying cause of the illness. The precise mechanism of action is unknown; though there is a lot to be said for just ‘getting it off your chest’ (my recurrent reflections on the state of the National Health Service spring to mind). However, it is likely that there is a much deeper-seated action, triggered from within the brain, which has a longer lasting positive effect on health.
That said, the therapeutic effects of writing are not restricted to emotional issues. There is good clinical research to show how writing can improve the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, reduce resting blood pressure, improve walking speeds in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, quicken recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder, produce an enhanced sense of mental and physical well-being in patients with bowel, breast or prostate cancer, and reduce the symptoms of some adults with asthma.
Writing is also a useful adjunct to counselling, being a means by which a patient can express concerns, fears and unpleasant memories in a controlled way. Often performed whilst in the comfort and privacy of their own home, the patient can take time to say what they really want to say, without the distress of speaking directly to a stranger. The counsellor can then subsequently use what has been written as a means of conducting the therapeutic session. In many ways, writing therapy can mirror the process of art therapy, the value of which is already well-recognised.
Whatever writing may be to you, I personally subscribe to the view of the Japanese diarist, Sei Shonagon, who proclaimed that ‘if writing did not exist, what terrible depressions we should suffer from’. On that thought, perhaps everyone should adopt writing as a resolution. Happy New Year to you all.
(First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Thursday, 27th December 2012)