A writing career is fraught with peril – just ask Alex Rover. Here is your complete guide to writer health risks and remedies, with real-life examples and links to scientific sources.
Everybody knows the health risks involved in being a fireman – smoke inhalation, burning to death, and being forced to pose for a beefcake calendar.
Everybody knows the health risks involved in being a policeman – dying from bullet wounds in a shootout with bad guys, dying in a flaming crash while chasing the bad guys through alleyways and gridlock, and clogged arteries from too many donuts.
Everybody knows the health risks involved in being a power-line installer – falling to your death, electrocution, and exposure to extreme temperatures (and the various illnesses and injuries that involves).
But the risks involved in these careers pale in comparisons to the risks that writers face every day as they stand before their desks, ready to save the world from a misplaced semi-colon or a critical shortage of book reviews. (To check if you might be a writer, here is a method to self-diagnose.)
George Orwell once said:
“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.”
Indeed, he completed Nineteen Eighty-Four quite literally on his deathbed.
I warn you in advance that this post is much longer than I usually write, but I have also linked to a number of other articles and scientific studies – otherwise this post would have turned out to be a book.
- Sitting through the day
- Eye strain
- Tension headaches
- Repetitive strain injury
- Identity loss (fiction only)
Sitting through the day
If you’ve been hiding under a rock recently, you might have missed the most trendy health risk that has just been “discovered”. Sitting for too many hours in a day, particularly for too many consecutive hours, is slowly killing us all off.
The ill effects of too much sitting include some of the worst health villains of our day – obesity, cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dementia, “all-cause mortality” (another term for death by whatever means).
A meta study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine earlier this year concluded that: “Prolonged sedentary time was independently associated with deleterious health outcomes regardless of physical activity.” In other words, you can’t spend 10 hours writing and then make up for the sedentary time by going to the gym for an hour. You should be moving over the course of the day.
Sports medicine specialist Jason Matuszak, M.D., offers similar advice: “People who don’t exercise can be healthier even if all they do is reduce the amount of time they sit. People who do exercise can be healthier by decreasing the time they spend sitting, too.” In a fanciful display of advance bedside manner, he likes to ask his patients: “What fits your busy schedule better: exercising an hour a day or being dead 24 hours a day?”
The often-reported solution for this problem is to get a stand-up desk. Journalist Sydney Trent describes why he opted for a stand-up desk: “Over the years, I had concluded that sitting all day made me sluggish, less focused. On top of that, my neck and shoulders were routinely tight, and sometimes the pain interfered with my sleep.”
Ernest Hemingway agreed: “Writing and travel broaden your ass if not your mind and I like to write standing up.” Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf and numerous other authors are reported to also have written standing up.
Sydney Trent goes on to note that stand-up desks bring their own health risks, such as varicose and hardening of the arteries. Yes, standing will burn about 30 percent more calories than sitting, but we still need to move around more. Which means that we writers are doomed no matter what we do. (Queue ominous music.)
More and more companies are supplying sit-stand desks for their employees. I suppose these are marginally better, because moving up and down is better than not moving at all, and you don’t have to face the perils of either sitting too much or standing too much. Writers might want to get sit-stand desks, too.
I tend to tap my foot a lot. That’s better than nothing, I suppose, but hardly a solution. Best practice is to get up and do some moderately vigorous physical activity for a few minutes every half hour. I often run up and down the stairs, but I also often forget to move at all.
Pardon me while I take a quick break to walk around a bit.
Like our bodies, our eyes are meant to keep moving. When they don’t, we have a problem. All that staring at the brightly lit screen can also lead to migraines, blurred vision and other eye issues. Studies have linked staring at computer screens all day to an increased risk of glaucoma.
Apparently we blink only half as often in front of a computer screen as we “normally” do. This happens because we squint, yes, even just a little without realizing it. This creates “dry eye” which might or might not also contribute to eye strain.
The eyes need variety in a number of ways:
- variety of lighting
- variety of direction, to the left and right, up and down
- variety of focal distance, looking at both near and far objects
I am blessed to be a two-finger typist. Yes, that means that I might type slower than some people (although, I am pretty fast for two fingers), but it also means that I look back and forth from screen to keyboard, so my eyeballs move at least up-and-down and I change my focal distance a bit and, of course, the lighting changes frequently.
The best thing you can do for your eyes is to purposefully look up, to the right and to the left into the distance every few minutes. You might want to follow the 20-20-20 rule, every 20 minutes staring at something at least 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. Looking away also helps your neck. If you take the same moment to roll your shoulders and stretch your arms up and back and forward and around, you’ll also reduce the general physical tension in your body.
Or get a cat; they sometimes force you to look at them every now and then. Kids do that, too. Or try working in a café, where you can’t help but look up as people pass by.
Don’t be shy to place a sticky note that says “Blink!” Reducing glare and increasing font size also tend to reduce the amount of squinting and increase the amount of blinking.
Keeping your computer screen a couple feet from your eyes is also recommended, partly to avoid focusing too closely for too long, and partly because you are more likely to also look beyond the screen, or even closer at your own hands, from time to time.
Of course, if you take a few minutes to engage in physical activity for your whole body, this will also benefit your eyes, because that will also take them away from the computer screen.
OK, time for another break. I’ll be back soon to write the next section.
Is it any wonder that people get headaches staring at a computer screen? You can sit for hours without moving your neck. Your eyes are riveted on the screen. You are working away – you are in flow! – with full concentration of both mind and body as the words flow from your brain through your finger tips to the screen.
Everything about you and your body is tense.
This will be a short section – no need even for me to take a break at the end. The remedies are already explored above. Take frequent breaks. Give your body a shakedown and a workout. Give your eyes variety in distance, lighting and direction. Roll your shoulders and stretch your arms in all directions.
If headaches persist, it might be more serious. Perhaps you need a different eyewear prescription. Or perhaps there is something not related to writing. Yes, writing can be dangerous, but there are other risks in life, too.
Backache is the result of hunching over your keyboard and remaining in that position for many hours of the day. Do it long enough, and your friends will affectionately call you “hunchback”.
As with tension headaches, this is a pain you can deal with in large part by moving about more frequently, and particularly by rolling your shoulders and stretching.
Checking your posture while you are typing will also have obvious benefits in warding off backache. In fact, your tension headaches might be caused by poor posture.
You might also want to check your posture at other times, including when watching TV, eating and while standing. Yes, back pain due to poor posture could have nothing to do with your writing career.
Best practice is to place your screen just below eye level, so that your neck bends downward just slightly.
A few additional remedies include giving yourself a neck and upper back massage and buying an ergonomic chair. I find that when I sit back in my chair, more for social media activities and networking than for writing, I tend to slouch. But when I sit on the edge of my seat, as I am doing now to write, I generally have much better posture.
Here is a piece of advice I don’t think you’ll read elsewhere. Write on a desktop, not on a laptop. Why? For best posture, you need the keyboard right in front of your body, to avoid slouching shoulders as you reach. But for best eye distance, you want the screen to be a couple feet away from your eyes. You can’t have it both ways on a laptop; you can on a desktop.
Oops. Since I first wrote this, I switched to a laptop. Bad boy.
Dr. Steve Knighton, a chiropractor based in Oakville, Ontario, has a number of tips on posture and equipment usage. It seems he wants me to “Don’t sit on your damn leg, keep both your feet on the ground.” Yeah, right! Like that’s going to happen.
Clayton Scott, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan offers a lot of good advice about posture, seating and use of keyboard, mouse and screen. And would you be surprised that his top tip is to TAKE BREAKS! His capitalization. His exclamation mark. His advice, however, is not specific to backaches, but rather to repetitive strain injury.
Repetitive strain injury
Many writers feel pain in their hands, wrists and arms from overuse.
“I can hardly feel my right arm at times. It often hurts. I haven’t seen a doctor about it yet, but I need constant massages,” says Ann Smarty of MyBlogU. “I always suffer from it after a day of heavy typing. I may be typing with the right hand more, plus it’s the one that scrolls through the touchpad.”
If you make the same precise movements repeatedly, you run the risk of causing damage to various soft tissues, including your muscles, your nerves and your tendons. The hands and wrists are most vulnerable to this. Among the conditions that fall into this category are bursitis, writer’s cramp and tendonitis. Writers and data entry clerks are most at risk, due to the nature of their tasks.
In the extreme, it can sometimes lead to carpal tunnel syndrome if you are predisposed.
Writer Sharon Hurley Hall believes that is what happened to her and she wrote about it (because when you’re a writer, that’s what you do). She tells me that, “At the time, the doctor advised me to reduce the amount of typing I did (difficult, as I’m a writer) and to wear support straps. I still experience discomfort after a typing marathon.”
If you have been feeling a tingling or numbness in your hands or wrists, chances are you have carpal tunnel syndrome. Left untreated, it will likely get worse, with piercing pain shooting up your arm.
Not everybody’s symptoms are the same. Blogger Emory Rowland says, “I’ve had pain in my right wrist off and on from work and gaming.” Freelance writer Gail Gardner says, “I have calluses on the pinkie finger side of both hands because I rest my hands turned outward and put more pressure there than on the rest of my palm.”
It should by now go without saying that taking frequent breaks will help. Any break from the repetition is good. Of course, if you massage the hands and wrists or do other things with your hands – different movements – that makes the break even more beneficial. Twist and roll your wrists to make sure blood flows everywhere and to keep the muscles supple.
Adjusting your posture to reduce the strain on your wrists is also helpful. Adjusting her posture is something Shobha Ponnappa was advised to do for her aching neck-shoulder area. The pain, which was diagnosed as bursitis doesn’t go away. Posture changes and painkillers don’t work, and the longer she works at her laptop, the worse the pain gets. “I am now resigned to the fact that writing is a pain in the neck, but if it has to be done, it has to be done!” she says.
Try also to use as little force as possible when hitting the mouse and keyboard. And keep your hands warm – my never ending challenge.
Experimenting with your equipment can help, too. Sharon Hurley Hall wears wrist straps and has also used Dragon speech recognition software to reduce the amount of typing she has to do.
Emory Rowland bought “a more ergonomic Logitech mouse that tilts your hand slightly to the right”, and reports that it seems to have helped.
Gail Gardner rests her hands on a padded keyboard support, but her “gel-filled wrist pad has dents in it.”
Much of what I used to do with a mouse, I now do by tapping on a touch screen. And I purposefully use my left (awkward) hand for certain tapping. This has reduced somewhat a pain that had been building up in my upper right arm.
I bought a laptop specifically for the touch screen. Good boy.
Repetitive stress injuries don’t happen just in the hands and wrists, but also in the neck and shoulders, or in my case, in the upper arm. That is one more reason to take those breaks, roll the shoulders, stretch the arms in all directions and make sure to have good posture.
One of the things I notice when I am in flow, whether writing or doing anything else, is that I want something quick to eat. I don’t want to spend ten minutes making a salad. I want to be back writing within seconds. The easy things to grab are usually the worst things to eat.
To make matters worse, if you do things the really fast way, grabbing the bag of brownies or chips and just bring it over to your desk with you to munch on while you type, chances are that you will eat the entire bag, not just a “reasonable” quantity. If you do that with a bag of carrots, kudos to you, by the way.
The solution is to plan your meals in advance, first thing in the morning or even the night before. By mentally focusing on the food without being distracted by the writing, you can better control your eating. And if you know you’ll get the munchies mid-afternoon, you can plan something less damaging than impulse binging on your mother-in-law’s banana bread sitting out on the counter screaming “Eat me! Eat me!” But that is, of course, just a hypothetical example – heh, heh.
Did you know that writers are more prone to depression than normal people? Creative careers (artists, entertainers, writers) are among the top 10 careers with the most depressions.
For many people, it is the solitary nature of writing that makes them prone to depression. Any work-from-home freelancer would face this, whether writer, designer or consultant. Financial writer Miranda Marquit observes, “When you shift to working from home, you all of a sudden don’t have that social network at work. … For some people that can mean a feeling of isolation that eventually becomes overwhelming.”
But writers tend to get lost in their craft and often immerse themselves in solitude longer than most other freelancers do.
And like other freelancers, writers face the emotional challenges of dealing with client acquisition, demanding clients and some off-the-wall abusive or just-plain-crazy clients. Writers who are authors in their own right (as opposed to ghostwriters) also face the emotional upheaval of rejection letters from editors, agents and publishers and the naysaying from family and “friends” – you know, the maybe-it’s-time-you-got-yourself-a-real-job syndrome. “A large part of a writer’s success depends on how other people think of him or approve,” says Alan Manevitz, MD, a clinical psychiatrist in New York City, whose words could apply to any artist or entertainer, as well.
A huge study reported in 2012 found that: “Except for bipolar disorder, individuals with overall creative professions were not more likely to suffer from investigated psychiatric disorders than controls. However, being an author was specifically associated with increased likelihood of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, unipolar depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and suicide.”
In fact authors were found to be twice as likely to commit suicide as other people. Those rejection letters can really sting.
Interestingly, the study also found that the close relatives of authors were overrepresented in schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anorexia nervosa and autism. It seems that being a writer is contagious, after all.
The study’s lead researcher, Simon Kyaga, postulates: “It takes a long time before you get something published and a long time to get feedback. That waiting isn’t present to the same extent in other occupations.”
Novelist Simon Brett says, “Almost every writer I know goes through the same reaction after a novel is finished – there are 24 hours of euphoria and then all the negative thoughts you have shut out while finishing it come out, and either you get drunk or depressed or get the flu.”
But how does this differ from the sculptor, the painter or the musician who has just completed a work?
Here’s a useful bit of trivia. Did you know that a healthy diet and regular exercise often helps with depression? I know, I know, where have you heard that before? Dancers, musicians, sculptors, and even painters move around much more than writers do. Could this lack of physical activity be the biggest risk factor that writers face?
Identity loss (fiction only)
Some writers can submerge themselves so deeply in their stories that they lose a sense of their own identity. This can sometimes be associated with depression, especially when their characters are going through bouts of suffering. According to Denise Mann, a writer with Everyday Health, “Being familiar with misery, pain, and suffering may guide the process for some writers. Yes, writers can write about suffering even if they don’t know it intimately, but some may feel that their work will lack authenticity if they haven’t experienced the same trials and tribulations as their characters on some level.
One author who often gets lost in her characters is Sharon Hinck, who writes notes to her characters and leaves them on the kitchen table. “My husband says it’s okay for me to write notes to my characters, as long as they don’t start writing notes to me.”
Immersing yourself in your characters is a creative process that many fiction writers find helps them produce more compelling manuscripts. It is only if that process absorbs the writer that you run the risk of the Abzorbaloff. (What, did you think I could write a post this long without any reference to Doctor Who?)
One method of tempering both depression and identity loss is to be less isolated. This might be a challenge, but there are writers groups in every city, and you can create chat rooms on Skype to discuss ideas, talk shop and rant about whatever is driving you crazy. Many people around you will not understand most of your challenges as a writer; other writers will.
A writer’s health risks are not as acutely visible as explosions and severed limbs – unless the writer is a war correspondent, of course. Writers themselves tend to be so absorbed in their work that they don’t notice the chronic, creeping onset of illnesses and injuries. But the health risks of being a writer are very real. If you take nothing else away from this article, at least take away this one word:
Yes, and keep moving. Move your arms, your shoulders, your legs, your whole body.
Do you have any stories of your own? Have you suffered from any of these conditions, or any others I might have left out? Please share your story below.
Disclaimer: I made light of the risks of being a firefighter or a police officer. In no way do I mean to diminish either the amazing contribution they make to society or the tremendous and very real risks they face every day. I take my hat off to every one of them.