Writers Slump. How do we get it? How can we avoid it?
How Good Writing Posture & Habits Will Help You Get More Words on the Page (And, Prevent Back Pain)
A slump is a slump.
If you don’t do something about it, it will get worse. Whether words on a page or slouching at your desk, action is required to get results. Writing is based on the accumulation of words on a page, while our posture is the accumulation of good habits that result in a stronger back.
If you sit down to write and your back already hurts you definitely have a problem. If you stand up from writing and your back hurts you also already have a problem. If you have ever had back pain, you have a problem. Back pain is not normal. It is a sign that are breaking down in some way. Rationalizing, explaining it away, and avoiding it are the worst things you can do for back pain. If you don’t have pain but have poor posture and sit for a prolonged time I recommend you assume that as a risk and start preventative methods now. Let’s just say,if you are a writer and sit for long stretches of time, you likely have or will have a problem.
I know you won’t be giving up writing. It’s a calling, an obsession. Don’t do that. Do add a few new habits.
Pain in the back or neck pain suggests that the structures or tissues have been burdened to the point of strained, torn, or degenerated and likely beyond restoration to their previous condition. That’s true. Pain should be addressed, not ignored. Prevention is the true path to a healthy back.
There is no quick fix. Prevention is actually committed awareness and dedication to the goal.
Causes of Skeletal Pain
Poor posture, deconditioning, excess weight, injuries and repetitive overuse are the most common causes of skeletal pain. Let’s address how these relate to writing and address what you can do about them.
Let’s Start with Weight.
Weight has nothing to do with writing but everything to do with compressive forces, load-bearing, and breakdown of disc material and ligament structures. Therefore, if you are carrying extra weight (even 10 pounds) you are risking pre-mature weakening of your back.
Know Your Food Triggers
Address habits of eating at your desk, over-eating, especially carbohydrates, sugar, refined foods, and alcohol. Replace these with fresh veggies, or liquids. Perhaps try intermittent fasting. Or master your relationship with food triggers.
Eat to fill nutritional requirements (especially protein) rather than fill emotional voids. Healthier foods also mean a clearer mind. Surprisingly, poor nutrition often results not only in excess weight but a foggy brain. You want a clear mind to do your best writing.
This is similar to weight but different. Deconditioning refers more to the tone and condition of your muscles and soft tissue structures and your cardiovascular capacity. The weaker your back and core muscles, the more you sit in a slump rather than erect in your posture.
Conditioning refers to tone, whereas posture relates to awareness (and underlying structure). Much of posture is the result of conditioning.
Attention to Sitting
If you have weak shoulders, you will sit with a rounded back and a forward head. This is stressful on both the back and the neck. If you have weak lower back muscles your lower back will also slouch. This strains the muscles, ligaments, and back portion of the discs. Weakening the discs. Most disc injuries occur when someone bends to pet the cat or pick up a gum wrapper, not when lifting one heavy load. They have sat poorly for too long watching a football game, on a cross country car ride or at their desk and shortly thereafter bend with a slight twist and the disc herniates. Not because of the activity, but because it was weakened over time by postural strain.
How’s Your Core?
If you are using your hands to push yourself out of a chair or moving your center of gravity forward you have a weak core and weak gluts. This requires exercise or it’s a slippery slope down the path of de-condition where you arrive to your walker. Make time for exercise. Find a coach who can help you safely begin to exercise these muscles.
Paying Attention to Your Posture
Posture. Posture is the awareness piece. One of the first things I look at during an exam is posture. And, patients almost always say “I have horrible posture, I need to work on that.” Yea, so why don’t they? Do they not understand how important it is?
Our bodies are no different than our cars in some ways. They are aging, wearing out, a product of their environment. Unfortunately, there is not a parts store for our body parts to be restored like an old car. And, even with new parts, it will never be new again. We need to think this way. Posture matters. So, make a conscious effort to sit up straight.
Zip up your pants.
You know that motion you make when you zip up your pants? There is the sensation of sucking in your stomach and tilting your pelvis backward while you pull the zipper up. This pelvic motion is usually a good position for the spine. As you suck in your stomach you contract the core and when you tuck your pelvis you decompress the spine if you don’t overdo the motion. It is a good technique to gain awareness of the position of the pelvis, especially while standing.
Strengthen Your Back
Shoulders follow the pelvis. If you slump while sitting then your lower back, shoulders and head slump too. Strengthening your back muscles and core improves posture. Sit up on your sitting bones (ischial tuberosities) and your lower back will be in neutral and your shoulders will retract and so will your head. You will decrease strain on both the lower back and neck.
Support your lower back with a cushion.
This will improve the position of your pelvis while sitting in a chair and even in your car and on your couch. It’s a bit of a cheat from using your muscles but it will at least prevent a slouch and may remind you to effort more in your sitting posture.
No more laptop writing on your couch!
Sit at a desk, in the 90/90 position. Back straight with hips at 90-degree angle and knees at a 90-degree angle. If your legs are too short, support your feet with a stool. Stand-up desks are a nice option for the lower back, but they don’t necessarily reduce neck and shoulder strain.
The importance of eyewear.
Set your monitor so that you can look at the screen with minimal head tilting. I have had many patients over the years who wear bifocals and continually tip their heads up or down to see the screen. Head and neck positions need to be in neutral. Your head should be retracted with ears over shoulders not craning your neck forward to see the screen more clearly.
Where’s your head at?
Beware of forwarding head posture! This is easy to do when focusing on a computer screen. Anterior head carriage increases the weight on the discs and that wear and tear over time causes degeneration and pain. It can result in numbness, tingling, and even weakness in the fingers and hands. This is a significant neurological problem. Nerve irritation can also feel like a stabbing or constant pain in the upper shoulder blade.
Sit up straight and pull your chin to your chest to relieve this strain. Regularly turn your head from side to side to strengthen the neck. There are other neck exercises but I find people can’t always do them well because they have weaknesses and can’t see themselves moving their own heads. Necks are delicate by nature, consult with an expert before self-prescribing exercises.
Car accidents and old whiplashes tend to disrupt normal movement. They also result in premature arthritis, chronic misalignment, and poor healing. If people jump into these exercises without some degree of coaching, they can be doing the exercises but not get much value out of them. It is best to have a professional teach you.
Yoga for good posture
One of my favorite benefits of yoga is turning the head in yoga poses. Looking up more regularly and adding moves to specifically rotate the head have real benefits to neck strength. If real life, and often the writing life our heads are in static positions or looking up and down with minimal rotation. These chronic positions do not have much strengthening potential.
Look up to the sky!
One exercise you can do is to simply look up more often as if you are raising your arms and face to the sky (not dropping the head back).
Another, more advanced exercise, is to be on hands and knees and turn your head from side to side as if you are looking over your shoulder.
An Age Old Tip That’s Still Worth Doing
My favorite tip, and a long-forgotten one, is to walk with a book on your head. In the old days when I took modeling classes, participating in beauty pageants and rodeo queen contests my coaches and mother had me walk this way. It causes you to lift your head up towards the book and walk smoothly and elegantly. I didn’t realize it then but the upward reaching of the head also exercises the muscles of the neck and improves the position of the neck to be stacked more over the shoulders.
Midback slouching from poor postural awareness and weak back muscles also contribute to anterior (forward) head carriage. In and of itself, having better posture tones and strengthens the neck and back muscles.
Additional Exercises to Improve Your Posture
Corner push-ups are an easy exercise to work into your day.
Seated rows with an exercise band are another convenient and good exercise.
Lying on your back on the floor with your arms overhead in the goal post position is also very good for your midback. It’s what I call “undoing what you do.” Meaning, reverse the bad habit of slouching by lying flat to take the pressure off the excessive slouching position. Let the floor lengthen your spine and encourage a flat back thereby stretching the muscles of the chest and the ligaments in the front of the spine. Refer to this exercise in Chapter 16: Self-Spinal Mobilization, Mobilization for Pain Relief & Strong Posture written by me in The Ultimate Guide to Self-Healing Techniques by Laura Di Franco.
Hand and wrist problems?
Carpal tunnel, thumb and finger arthritis, tendonitis can all slow down writing production. Some conditions are related to aging or injuries, others are related to hand and wrist “postures” of a repetitive overuse nature. Just like spines, extremities need stretching and exercise too. Specific conditions require specific rehab.
For more specific information reach out to me The Bend 406.888.6044.
Remember, taping might be helpful. Supporting sore and injured joints can help you heal faster. So can things like massage, ultrasound and bracing. Also, consider the positions of your neck and wrists while you sleep. Poor pillows that don’ts support the neck and bent wrist positions can really aggravate finger and wrist problems. See my article on how to select the right pillow for sleeping.
Other Things to Keep in Mind
Vitamin and mineral deficiency can also be a factor in recovery.
Wrists and fingers.
For general prevention stretch the finger and wrist flexor muscles (gripping muscles) and strengthen the finger and wrist extensor muscles (finger straightening). While writing hold the hand and wrist in positions of a “lift” at rather than “flat.”
Face and jaw.
Clenching while deep thinking results in the breakdown of teeth, jaw problems, neck problems and even headaches. Get a night splint, consult your dentist or seek chiropractic care. Relax your face muscles and your jaw periodically throughout your writing time. It is common to unconsciously hold your face and jaw in habitual positions. If you have this habit, try to break it.
Many people are mouth breathers. You get 20% less oxygen when you breathe through your mouth as opposed to your nose. Also, mouth breathers tend to have their heads forward, their shoulders forward and breath from their upper chest straining the scalene muscles. This breathing issue is common in asthma, emphysema and shallow breathers. Sitting up straight and breathing into the belly encourages the diaphragm to work more, draw air deeper into the lungs and lets the muscles of respiration strengthen. Rib subluxations are a common source of pain in shallow breathers. Try 4 slow breaths in through the nose, 6-8 slow breaths out through the nose for several rounds to increase oxygen, calm the nervous system and reduce physical back and neck strain.
Blue light glasses.
Use these glasses to filter the blue light from phones and computer screens. We should be getting exposed to natural light in the morning, noon and night to set our circadian rhythm. Get outside! Use the blue light blocker glasses while at your computer. Definitely use them at night when using electronic devices to help you get to sleep and normalize sleep patterns. Establishing normal sleep patterns improves energy throughout the day. If you don’t have a normal sleep pattern due to irregular hours, blue light, stimulants, hormone changes, or anxiety it can be very detrimental to your overall health. Make a commitment to improve sleep. Hormone testing is available to evaluate markers related to sleep. Contact me for more information.
Healthy digestion is the cornerstone of many health problems. Our gut is our first line of immunity and very involved with inflammation and with hormone regulation. If you have back pain or arthritis in the fingers or general fatigue it could be due to food allergies, a poor gut biome, or digestive stress. Getting your gut well can reduce your overall inflammation and thereby potentially your productivity. Habits like alcohol and caffeine can also significantly affect the gut and brain chemistry.
Sometimes we need to look at our overall habits if we want to improve energy levels, reduce brain fog, and improve our physiology to improve our connection with our own sense of wellness in order to connect with that place for writing.
Mindless snacking may lead to weight gain and an increase in lower back pain. Eat foods that are calorically light and nutrient-dense. Drink water or herbal tea. Dehydration not only causes a multitude of biochemical problems it causes loss of hydration in the discs, especially if you are sitting, dehydrated discs are more fragile and susceptible to degeneration and herniation.
A very healthy practice to connect with deeper wellness and open or inspire the channels for writing. Meditation promotes calm and ease and sharpens focus. The benefits are endless. If it’s not a practice you have started, it’s worth adding 15 minutes a day for a few weeks to see if it is something you might want to continue.
When working on projects it helps to set a time. Set a time to get up once an hour and walk around for 5 minutes. Fire those extensor muscles. Walk, do squats, do wall push-ups, drink a glass of water, turn your head side to side and take some long deep breaths.
Stretching Prevents Slumping!
Folks are always asking for stretches. I’m more of an advocate for exercise but I do have some favorite stretches.
1) Lying flat on the floor with arms in goal post position to stretch the chest.
2) Legs up the wall to distract lower back and stretch hamstrings Refer to this exercise in Chapter 16: Self-Spinal Mobilization, Mobilization for Pain Relief & Strong Posture written by me in The Ultimate Guide to Self-Healing Techniques by Laura Di Franco.
3) finger and wrist stretches
Nobody wants to read about a slouchy character rubbing their neck sitting at their desk. Don’t let that character be you! Writing requires sitting and sitting has components of postural strain. Take this list of suggestions and make a few changes. If you have pain seek care. The better you take care of your body, and mind, the better you will write. Bring the best of you to your writing. Be the character that gets up in the morning and stretches, meditates, walks to their computer with a book on their head, puts on their blue blocker glasses, drinks water with lemon, snacks on carrots and nuts, and channels 2000 words easily onto the page before noon before they go to the gym. It’s you! The healthy, mindful writer!
About Dr. Putnam
Dr. Erika Putnam, a Holistic Chiropractic Physician, is the owner of The Bend in Whitefish, Montana. She’s an expert in whole health through chiropractic, yoga, functional medicine, nutrition, and peak performance coaching for men and women who want to improve their health, energy, and happiness. Consultations are free. Change takes a plan. Take action on your plan and call 406.888.6044.