Everything is more challenging when you’re actively dealing with a chronic illness every day, and being a writer is certainly no exception.
In fact, since it takes massive amounts of mental energy to write, writing is one of the more difficult activities to maintain while simultaneously having energy siphoned away by the dysfunction in your physical body.
In my case, it’s Lyme and gut issues, which manifest in all sorts of different ways — fatigue, joint and muscle pain, brain fog, and pretty much every gut issue you can think of. (Fortunately, I’m doing a lot better these days!)
Still, since I’ve really started to call myself a writer for about two years now (as opposed to someone who was always good at writing but never really did anything about it beyond school) and improving my health substantially over the past year, I’ve found a number of tools that have helped me balance my health and my writing — and find success in both.
Here are my 7 best tips for the chronically ill writer.
1. Your Health Comes First — No Exceptions
I hope this one doesn’t come as a surprise to you, but you absolutely should be putting your health — your physical, mental, and emotional wellness — first.
Because it’s the foundation of everything. Because you do not produce excellent writing without first nourishing your body and fueling your brain.
You have to eat well, take your medications and supplements, practice daily movement, meditate, whatever it is you do to take care of yourself. Make it a priority. Make it the priority.
You have to know what it feels like when you’re slipping on your self-care, and know how to get back on board when that happens. The more in tune you are with your body, mental energy, and emotional state, the better you can show up for your writing practice.
Action: In your calendar/planner, actually schedule in your meals, showers, movement, and any other self-care you need on a regular basis. Stick to this schedule for at least a week and reevaluate how you feel.
2. Change Your Language
This one is huge, and I didn’t really figure it out until well into my healing journey.
It involves the concept of neuroplasticity: that your repeated thoughts become beliefs that wire themselves into your subconscious mind, but that you can also change these core beliefs by repeatedly thinking new thoughts that overwrite the old ones. This has been my obsession for the last several months, and it completely changes everything.
For the longest time, I held the belief of “I am chronically ill; I have a chronic illness; I am always sick,” wired into my brain. This belief is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Now, by saying that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy, I’m not suggesting that anyone who experiences a chronic illness is making up their symptoms or faking anything or that it’s “all in your head.” Your experience of your symptoms is absolutely real. The question is: Is constantly reaffirming the experience of those symptoms in your mind helping you, or hurting you?
What if you changed that wired thought pattern of, “I am chronically ill” to “I am on a healing journey.” (Even if you don’t believe it yet.) Now, instead of telling your subconscious that you are stuck in the way you feel, you are telling it that you are in the process of healing. How might that change the way you approach each day?
How might that entirely change the way you live your life?
Action: Sit down in a quiet place and write down all of the internalized beliefs you have about your illness experience, the ones that constantly loop in your head every day. For example, “I’ll never get better.” “This is just the way things are.” “There’s nothing I can do to feel well.” “I’ll always feel/have [condition].”
Now, start a new page and write down the opposite of these beliefs, i.e., “I can and will get better.” “My health is always getting better.” “I am capable of creating my own wellness.” “I can overcome [condition].” These are your new wellness affirmations. Read them aloud to yourself every day until you know them by heart. You can also record yourself repeating them over calming instrumental music and listen to the recording each day. This is how you will rewire your brain and create new, helpful beliefs.
3. Lean on Friends and Family
If you’ve been living with a chronic illness for a while, you may have acquired the habit of simply toughing out situations by yourself, even if it means you’ll feel worse. You don’t want to feel like a burden to anyone; you don’t want anyone to go out of their way for you.
Here’s the thing: Most people, especially your loved ones, want to help you. Especially if you express your gratitude for their contribution, and if you tell them what their help allows you to do with your time (hopefully, write!).
For example, maybe you have fibromyalgia, and cleaning the house would leave you completely drained and exhausted. Can you ask your parent/sibling/friend to come over and help you with some of the chores, which would then give you back a little time and energy to write?
Don’t push the people who want to support you away because you feel like you have to or should be able to do everything yourself. Everyone needs support, and that’s 100% okay.
Action: Call a reliable and supportive friend or family member and ask them to help you with something small. Maybe it’s cleaning the house, or making dinner, or watching the kids for an hour so that you can write uninterrupted. Make sure you schedule this and of course, thank them for their help. Remember, the people that love you will be happy to help and connect with you.
4. Don’t discount small chunks of time.
You can absolutely write in 20, 15, 10, or even just 5-minute chunks of time. In fact, research shows that you might be able to focus more within a smaller time constraint.
So you know that your brain fog won’t allow you more than 10 minutes of focused attention. Then write for those 10 minutes; make them count! If you wrote for 10 minutes every day over a week, I bet you’d have an article by the end of it, or a few pages of your novel, a poem, or whatever it is that you write. You would have something. And that’s better than feeling like a failure because you counted yourself out in the first place.
I think most of the time writers drastically overestimate the amount of time they really need to complete a piece because they factor in all of the procrastination and distraction that we are so often prone to. But when you actually get down to it, how much time do you spend with fingers to keyboard? Not as much as you think.
Action: Get set up with your computer or pen and paper and set a timer for 15 minutes. Whether you’re working on a project or just freewriting, see how far you get in those 15 minutes. When the timer dings, congratulate yourself, for however far you got.
5. Talk About Your Writing More Than Your Health
How much time do you spend talking about your symptoms, or your low energy levels, or that asshole doctor who completely dismissed you without listening to a single word you said? (We’ve all been there.)
I get it, if you’re in pain or discomfort or just tired all the time, it might be all you can think about. But you have to pull yourself out of those negative thought spirals. (Neuroplasticity, remember?)
That doesn’t mean just spouting random positivity willy-nilly or pretending everything is fine. It doesn’t work that way. Instead, you should definitely use your affirmations that we outlined above, but you can also refocus your attention on something that you love — writing!
Tell people about your writing. What are you working on, why are you working on it, is there a section you’re struggling with, a character or plot point you’d like advice on?
Energy flows where attention goes. Focus your attention — and your conversation — on your passion for writing, and you’ll have more energy and passion for it.
Action: Get out your phone and text someone about what you’re writing today. You can frame it as accountability, if you like. For example, “Hey [friend], I just wanted to let you know that I’m going to write 500 words today of my novel. Can you text me about it this afternoon to hold me accountable?” This allows for a conversation to come up naturally.
6. Curate Your Social Media for Inspiration Only
Notice I’m not saying to abandon scrolling altogether! (The horror!)
I think social media can actually be an amazing tool for gathering inspiration and expansion — seeing other people doing what you want to do and living how you want to live can trigger your brain to go, “Hey, look; that’s possible for them, so it’s possible for me too!”
But the trick is to be super intentional about who you follow and what content you pay attention to. If there’s anyone you follow who regularly makes you feel bad, if you’re always doom scrolling through news accounts, if you’re following drama or even creating drama among the sea of comments and posts, you need to stop. Even if (especially if) it’s friends and family who are bringing you down with their social feeds. You don’t owe them your constant attention or stress.
All of that drama/stress is only skyrocketing your cortisol and keeping you in a state of fight or flight, which means your body can’t heal. It certainly makes writing a lot harder too!
If you’re deep into this negative kind of social media, you may need to stop altogether for a time and exchange it for more introspective practices instead. Journaling, meditation, yoga, or stretching are all great options.
Then you’ll also have space to think about and create a list of what you actually want to see in your feeds. This can be as general or specific as you like. What makes you happy, inspired, motivated, excited?
A few of my personal recommendations on Instagram: @livingrootswellness, @hormonehealingrd, @simplysarahturner, @sourcemessages, and @marieforleo . They don’t have to be only health and writing either! I love also following delicious food blogs, astrology accounts, and fellow entrepreneurs/freelancers.
The point is to make your social media a place that lifts you up rather than drags you down. Trust me, once you make the shift, you’ll never go back.
Action: Think about who you follow on social media. Is there anyone who immediately jumps out at you as toxic or stress-inducing? Pick up your phone right now and quietly unfollow or mute their posts. I promise there’s no karmic force that will punish you for doing so. In fact, seeting these boundaries is a sign that you are valuing yourself and your health and raising your self-worth.
7. Connect With Others in the Same Boat
The intersection between people with chronic illness — excuse me, people on a healing journey — and people who write is wider than you might think.
There are always people out there trying to do what you’re doing, and you can learn from each other and help each other grow. I‘ve found that it’s one of the great pleasures in life to be able to do so.
I’ve learned so much from the communities I’ve become a part of, and when your community innately knows the health challenges and struggles you deal with on a daily basis, you can come through them together that much easier. Even if only a little bit.
Plus, it never hurts to get an extra set of eyes on your writing.
So find your people. Maybe that’s in a Facebook group, a publication here on Medium, or even in your IRL community.
Action: Do one thing to connect with another writer you admire today. Comment on their article, message them on FB or Instagram, tell them why you related to and enjoyed their work. It’ll absolutely make their day, and you’ll start building meaningful connections.
I know you’ve heard it before, but it’s worth repeating: You are not alone.
There are so many ways you can build a support system that allows you to achieve your writing goals and create a better, healthier life for yourself. Funnily enough, the two seem to go hand in hand. The more you commit to doing something you love, the better you feel, and on and on in an upward spiral.
As a society, we still tend to undervalue the importance of having a purpose to speed the healing process, but it is absolutely essential for a healthy mind and body.
You are a writer, illness or no. Writing is at least part of your purpose. Lean into that purpose, and you’ll naturally find ways to improve your quality of life and attract others who share in your passion.
Thanks for reading! You’ll like these articles too:
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Want to Be Successful? Appreciate How Far You’ve Already Come.
You’ve conquered so many challenges already, and that’s worth celebrating.
Amanda Bourbonais is a holistic health copywriter for practitioners, businesses, coaches, and more. You can find out more about her work at amandabourbonaisagency.com.