Writing and Wellbeing
Sue Hann


Writing and Wellbeing is a Spread the Word series featuring writers sharing how they nurture themselves and their writing, particularly in the strange and startling times of Coronavirus. Sue Hann is a psychologist and psycho-sexual therapist, interested in the interplay between psychology and creativity. In this blog, she writes about self-motivation, recognising our needs, and vital techniques to manage uncertainty. 

For someone who professes to like writing, I will often do anything to avoid sitting down to write. Now in the middle of this global pandemic, with the uncertainties and fears that it brings, motivating myself to write is more of a challenge than ever.

I am reminding myself of Maslow’s theory of human motivation to help make sense of why this might be. At the heart of this theory is a pyramid with the basic physiological needs at the bottom, moving up to psychological needs and finally, at the apex of the pyramid, self-actualisation, which includes creativity. The base of the pyramid is the foundation for all of our endeavours, but the peak offers us something to strive for.

Our physiological needs are essential for our survival — we all need food, rest, safety. Coronavirus has presented challenges to these basic needs. How safe can we feel in the middle of a pandemic with a death toll rising daily? Do we have enough to eat? At the beginning of lockdown, mass panic buying meant that finding basic food and care items was a challenge. Do we have enough money? Even if we are not directly impacted by job losses and salary cuts, a sense of economic uncertainty impacts us all.

Coronavirus is also challenging the psychological needs of belongingness, love, and self-esteem. With social distancing and lockdown, we are having to be creative to maintain our sense of connection with others.

At the top of the pyramid are self-actualisation needs, which includes creativity (and also, worryingly, morality!). When we are in the lucky position of having our basic needs met, we can devote our energies to these higher-order ‘being’ needs that allow us to strive to reach our full potential.

Maslow’s theory reminds me to recognise just how difficult these times are and why I might feel less motivated to sit down to write. Although each level may not be entirely satisfied before we think about the next, it is a useful reminder to be realistic about what we can expect from ourselves creatively in these challenging times. Alongside this framing of our motivations, there are also some tools that we can use to embrace a more gentle effort, and help to move ourselves towards activity that we value.

The FACE acronym, from Dr Russ Harris, is a good way of remembering how to manage all of the uncertainty swirling around us—uncertainty about this pandemic’s impact on our health, jobs, the economy, and our futures.

Focus on what’s in your control: It is very easy to get lost in worrying and ruminating about coronavirus. Although this is understandable, the more we focus on what’s not in our control, the more anxious we are likely to feel.

Acknowledge: Instead of trying to push away worries, acknowledge whatever thoughts and feelings show up for you.

Come back into your body: Use a method to connect with your physical body e.g. try taking slow and deep abdominal breaths, or try a grounding exercise: slowly push your feet hard into the floor and focus on the sensation in your feet as you do this.

Engage: refocus your attention on the activity you are doing. Try noticing what’s around you using each of the five senses. This is similar to some of the techniques we use in creative writing to bring a scene alive; now you can use it to try to anchor yourself back into this present moment, and not the future moment that you may be worrying about.

It can be a long climb to the top of Maslow’s pyramid, but the first step is to recognise the reasons why we might feel like we’re floundering at the bottom. And it’s not because we’re lazy, or lack dedication. It’s OK if your word-count is down, or even flat-lining. This won’t last forever. Eat well. Exercise. Remember FACE (but don’t touch it). You’re doing fine. A low word-count does not make you less of a writer. You’ll be back.

Sue Hann is a psychologist and psycho-sexual therapist, interested in the interplay between psychology and creativity. Her work explores how psychology and art both try to make sense of the universality of pain and suffering. She writes flash fiction and creative non-fiction. Her work has been published in online and print journals such as Popshot quarterly, and included in the National Flash Fiction Day anthology. She lives in London with her husband and a problematic number of books.  She is a London Writers Awards recipient 2019-20 and is longlisted for the Life Writing Prize 2020. 

Published 13 May 2020