Can Writing Heal Physical Pain?

Let me preface this post by saying, discussing my personal struggles with pain is my least favorite subject. The only reason I’m even broaching this subject is because I discovered a cool connection between writing and pain management, and I hope it’ll help those who need it.

Last week, New Hampshire got hammered with one snowstorm after another, the totality of which resulted in snowbanks taller than I am. With such unsettled barometric pressure and weather patterns, my RA and psoriatic arthritis kicked into overdrive. For me, writing has always been the best pain medicine. When I’m in the zone, I leave my fractured skeleton in the chair and escape into my fictional world. But something—email, social media, direct messages, marketing, blogging, phone calls, and texts—kept yanking me out of my fictive dreamland when I needed it most, and the moment it did, my body screamed in protest.

And so, for self-preservation, I climbed back into my writing cave, padlocked and soundproofed the door behind me. Hence why you didn’t see me in the comment section last week, or on social media. For once, I put my own wellbeing above everything else. By the time I emerged from the writing cave a week later, I’d added over 30K words to the WIP. Now, I only have one or two chapters left to reach The End of Mayhem Series #7. Yay!


The U.S. Pain Foundation describes chronic pain as the following:

When you try to put your hand over a hot burner on the stove, your brain signals to you that it’s hot and you quickly move your hand away. This acute pain center lights up circuits in the nociceptive area, the acute brain center, alerting you to move away. 

Imagine if you can’t move your hand away from the burner even though you know it’s going to hurt. You get that signal telling you it’s too hot, but you cannot move your hand away. How would you feel? Angry? Enraged? Fearful? Panicked? You can’t stop the pain even though you know it’s coming. These natural emotions set off chemicals and hormones like fight-or-flight adrenaline, cortisol, and histamines which sensitize the nervous system, raise anxiety levels, and amplify our sensation of pain.

Is it any wonder we’d seek an escape?

With chronic pain, the pain travels through the emotional area of the brain or sympathetic nervous system. The emotion and pain pathways are so closely linked that it’s only possible to experience meaningful pain relief when you break this connection. Separating our emotions from our pain pathway is a learned skill, and writing plays an important role.

When we write, our brains release chemicals that calm the nervous system. Daily writing creates new neural circuits in the brain, giving us new ways to respond to old pain triggers. The new, healthy circuits eventually grow stronger than the old pain circuits.

A 1986 study uncovered something extraordinary, something that inspired generations of researchers to conduct several hundred more studies.

The gist is this. Professor Pennebaker asked students to spend 15 minutes writing about the biggest trauma of their lives. Or, if they hadn’t experienced trauma, to write about a difficult time. Meanwhile, a control group spent the same number of sessions (4) writing a description of something neutral like a tree or their dorm room.

For the six months that followed the study, the professor monitored how often students visited the health center. Remarkably, the students who’d written about their trauma and real emotions made significantly fewer trips to the doctor. Ever since, the field of psychoneuroimmunology has been exploring the link between what’s now known as expressive writing, and the functioning of the immune system. Psychoneuroimmunology studies examine the effect of expressive writing on everything from asthma and arthritis to breast cancer and migraines, with surprising beneficial results.

Writing even heals physical wounds faster.

Brave volunteers engaged in expressive writing; a second group did not. Days later, they were all given a local anesthetic and a punch biopsy at the top of their inner arm. Researchers monitored the 4mm wounds. The volunteers who engaged in expressive writing healed faster than the others.

What does the act of committing words to paper do? Initially it was assumed this occurred through catharsis, that people felt better because they’d released pent-up emotions. But then Pennebaker dissected the language used by the two groups.

The fast healer’s point of view changed over the course of the four sessions. They began with 1st person, then moved to deep 3rd, suggesting they were looking at the event from different perspectives. They also used “because” and the like, implying they were making sense of the events and putting them into a narrative. The results proved the simple act of labeling your feelings and putting them into a story boosts the immune system.

Sounds a lot like crafting fiction steeped in real emotion, doesn’t it?

What Pennebaker found curious but makes perfect sense to me (and you, probably) is that simply imagining a traumatic event and writing a story about it also made wounds heal faster, concluding that the writing has less to do with resolving past issues and more to do with finding a way of channeling real emotions.

Despite several decades of research showing that writing works to manage pain, it’s rarely used clinically. Also, the process works better for some people than others, depending on how well they engage with the process.

So, the next time you’re in pain, lock yourself away in your writing cave. Your body and WIP will both thank you. 😉

Do you have any personal experience to share? What do think about these studies? 

Is It Still a Thrill?

by James Scott Bell

If I may begin today with a toot (no, not that kind). A toot of my own horn. For today is release day for my seventh Mike Romeo thriller, Romeo’s Rage. (If you’re new to the series, please note these may be read in any order.) It’s there for you this week at the deal price of $2.99 (reg. $4.99). (Outside the U.S., go to your Amazon store and search for: B0BFRP7SQV)

Thank you. Now let’s talk thrills.

We of course specialize in thrillers and suspense here at TKZ. Our archives are filled with tips and techniques on such matters as the grabber opening, scenes that compel readers to turn the page, characters we care to follow, and so on.

We also frequently talk about the challenges writers face when striving to produce (see, e.g., Terry’s recent post). When we do overcome and the writing is flowing again, there’s a thrill in that. And so, too, when we put the final polish on a manuscript and send it to our publishing house, or up to the Kindle store.

And then there’s thrill of the book’s release. It’s like the start of the running of the bulls at Pamplona (as long as you can run fast, that is). It’s the raising of the curtain on opening night on Broadway, with you in the middle of the stage about to intone, “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.” It’s just before you drop out of the plane with a parachute on your back, or dive off the bridge with a bungee cord around your ankles.

The thrill generally takes three forms.

  1. Working for the Forbidden City, it’s when you open the box of copies the publisher has sent you, and take out your baby and hold it in your hands. The idea may have been conceived a couple of years ago. You finished the book, and it’s been another year to eighteen months for the actual delivery. Here it is at last! You hold it and smell it, like a proud papa or mama.
  2. It’s when you go to the bookstore and see it on the shelf. Even better, on the shelf with the cover facing out. Better than that, on the New Release table. Best of all, if your publisher has laid out the bucks, it’s in a dedicated book display on the floor or in the window.
  3. For the indie writer, it’s when the book is live online.

I’ve experienced all three, and for me it never gets old.

Now comes the waiting, the watching. Your book is out there on its own. The initial thrill begins to fade, replaced by that onerous irritant, expectations. You’re hoping—for sales, great reviews, a bestseller list, a call from Spielberg.

You know what the odds are. The average number of novels sold by traditional publishers is in the mid- to low-four figures, unless, of course, you’re on the A or B+ list. It’s anyone’s guess about ebook sales. We do know the number of ebooks published annually is somewhere north of 4 million. Ack!

But you can’t help hoping. You’re a writer, and every writer desires a growing audience of readers who will become dedicated fans. Yet if your book doesn’t get the foothold you hoped for, the emotional crash is like a rancid tamale in the tummy. (I must be metaphor crazy today.)

As hard as it is to do, Stoic wisdom stresses the management of expectations. You simply cannot stress about the things that are out of your hands! Your hands are for typing (or handwriting). I wrote more about Stoic wisdom here.

You must manage expectations about social media, too. It’s well established now that social media is not the super-duper sales machine people originally thought it would be. Remember the early years of Twitter? Some writers were posting the same “Buy my book!” tweet a dozen times a day. “Hey! I’m reaching millions of people this way! That’s gotta sell some books!”


Of course, if you have 97 million followers on Instagram and 6 million on Twitter, like Billie Eilish, you might be able to move some books (though apparently not enough to cover a large advance).

For the rest of us, social media has its place, but not as the main driver of book sales.

So what happens when that tamale hits your gut? My advice is to cover it with ice cream. Let it hurt for a few hours, but no longer. Get back to your keyboard. For as you type, you’ll begin to feel it once more—the thrill of the new story, new characters, new plot twists and turns. And finally, the thrill of a new baby. The book is done. You’re back in the delivery room. It’s launch day again.

What about you? Do you still feel—or anticipate—a thrill on launch day? Does the prospect inspire you? Sustain you? Does it ever get old?  

Or like B. B. King, are you lately singing, “The Thrill is Gone”? Are you doing anything to get it back?

Monday Tips and LOLs

I should’ve had a first page critique for you today, but it’s my birthday, you see, and I gave myself the gift of time. By that I mean, rather than juggle nine million tasks, I spent an uninterrupted Friday, Saturday, and Sunday morning inside my fictional world (except for a quick trip to TKZ to read Rev’s top-notch advice about agents and JSB’s superb first page critique). Sunday afternoons I reserve for football. 😉

Most of last week I spent redesigning my website and Murder Blog. Then tweaked it to death in between working on the WIP, engaging on social media, marketing, newsletters, virtual events, updating email subscribers and SEO, etc. etc. etc. So, allowing myself to pull away from it all, crawl into my writer’s cave, and block out the world freed my soul.

Today’s dedicated to birthday shenanigans. If the sun parts the storm clouds, Bob and I will head to one of my favorite places—Squam Lakes Natural Science Center—for a relaxing stroll through the wildlife trails. It’s the simple things in life that bring the most joy. Don’t you agree?

I’ve got two writer tips to share, then let’s party with a few Monday morning laughs. Sound good? Cool, let’s do this…


If someone Unsubscribes from your email list, be sure to Archive their name. Mailchimp and other email providers still charge you whether or not that person ever receives another newsletter. You’re billed for Contacts, not Subscribers. Technically, the person who Unsubscribed is still considered a Contact. They can’t charge for Archived Contacts.


Poor SEO (Search Engine Optimization), an outdated design, lost backlinks, broken links, and/or a slow or unresponsive website theme murders organic traffic. If bot crawlers aren’t happy, they might skip your site, and all the years you’ve spent writing content will be wasted. Did you know most people read blogs on handheld devices? I am not one of them, but the experts swear it’s true.



Umm, about five minutes ago. Did you know this?




I plead the fifth, Your Honor. 😉


Who can relate?

Feel free to steal any of these for your social media. Hope you have an amazing week!


Reader Friday: Writing Goals

What are your writing goals for 2020? Are you on track to achieve those goals? 

We all know writing is a marathon, not a sprint. For many, the pandemic demolished their writing goals for the year, or at least set them back.

I don’t want to push you if you’re not ready — we all cope differently and on our own timeline — but setting goals can help steer your writing dreams back onto the track. 🙂

Name one writing goal you hope to achieve this year. What about in 5 years? 10 years? 

Just Breathe… You’ve Got This

By Sue Coletta

Writers wear many hats… wife/husband, mother/father, sister/brother, friend, marketer, editor, (some add) publisher, (some add) cover designer, (some add) audiobook narrator, (some add) speaker, (some add) coach, housekeeper, bookkeeper, blogger, social media user/expert, tax preparer, holiday host, baker, cook, etc., etc., etc.

Under the best of circumstances, it’s a lot to juggle. During the holiday season, forget about it. Feeling overwhelmed is the new normal, especially if you’re hosting a holiday event.

First, breathe. You’ve got this.

When chaos starts shaking the to-do list in my face, I close my eyes, lean back, and breathe… It’s amazing what a few deep breaths can do. There’s a running joke in my family that I’m so chill, I’m practically a corpse. It’s true! My blood pressure rarely, if ever, rises above 110/60, even under stressful conditions. And you know why? Because I take advantage of the most powerful and the most basic gift we have — the ability to breathe.

It may not sound like much of a superpower, but controlled breathing improves overall health. Controlled breaths can calm the brain, regulate blood pressure, improve memory, feed the emotional region of the brain, boost the immune system, and increase energy and metabolism levels.

The Brain’s Breathing Pacemaker

A 2016 study accidently discovered a neural circuit in the brainstem that plays a pivotal role in the breathing-brain control connection. This circuit is called “the brain’s breathing pacemaker,” because it can be adjusted by alternating breathing rhythm, which influences our emotional state. Slow, controlled breathing decreases activity in the circuit while fast, erratic breathing increases activity. Why this occurs is still largely unknown, but knowing this circuit exists is a huge step closer to figuring it out.

Breathing Decreases Pain 

Specifically, diaphragmatic breathing exercises. Ever watch an infant sleep? Their little tummy expands on the inhale and depletes on the exhale. They’re breathing through their diaphragm. We’re born breathing this way. It’s only as we grow older that we start depending on our lungs to do all the work.

Singers and athletes take advantage of diaphragmatic breathing techniques. Why not writers? If you find yourself hunched over the keyboard for too long, take a few moments to lay flat and concentrate on inflating your belly as you inhale through your nostrils. Then exhale while pulling your belly button toward your core. It takes a little practice to master the technique. Once you do, you can diaphragmatically breathe in any position. The best part is, it works!

Count Breaths for Emotional Well-Being

In 2018, another scientific study found that the mere act of counting breaths influenced “neuronal oscillations throughout the brain” in regions related to emotion. When participants counted correctly, brain activity showed a more organized pattern in the regions related to emotion, memory, and awareness, verse participants who breathed normally (without counting).

Controlled Breathing Boosts Memory

The rhythm of our breathing generates electrical activity in the brain that affects how well we remember. Scientists linked inhaling to a greater recall of fearful faces, but only when the participants breathed through their nose. They were also able to remember certain objects in greater detail while inhaling. Thus, researchers believe nasal inhalation triggers more electrical activity in the amygdala (brain’s emotional center). Inhaling also seems key to greater activity in the hippocampus, “the seat of memory,” according to Forbes.

Relaxation Response

The “Relaxation Response” (RR) is a physiological and psychological state opposite to the fight-or-flight response. RR therapy includes meditation, yoga, and repetitive prayer, and has been practiced for thousands of years. These stress-reducing practices counteract the adverse clinical effect of stress in disorders like hypertension, anxiety, insomnia, and aging.

Yet, research on the underlying molecular mechanisms of why it works remained undetermined until a 2017 study unearthed a fascinating discovery. Both short-term and long-term practitioners of meditation, yoga, and repetitive prayer showed “enhanced expression of genes associated with energy metabolism, mitochondrial function…” and more efficient insulin secretion, which helps with blood sugar management. Relaxation Response also reduces the expression of genes linked to inflammatory responses and stress-related pathways. In simpler terms, controlled breathing helps boost the immune system and improve energy metabolism.


This probably goes without saying, but I’m mentioning it anyway. Good brain health increases creativity. Creativity helps inspiration. And inspiration ups word counts.

With all the rushing around for the holidays, combined with writing deadlines — either self-imposed or contracted — please take the time to breathe. Your body and your muse will thank you later. 🙂

Happy Holidays, my beloved TKZers! May all your writer dreams come true in 2020.



My Crossword Obsession

Happy Labor Day!

In honor of our official workers’ holiday, I thought I’d share/confess my favorite form of relaxation/obsession – my daily crossword fix. It began as a hobby over a decade ago (I was never a huge puzzle fan as a child or teenager) and has now morphed into a bit of an obsession…one primarily focused on the NYT crossword, but which has spread so that I can no longer resist the temptation to try each and every crossword I come across – whether it be in an airline magazine or the local newspaper at a coffee shop. Nowadays, my handbag invariably has a folded, squished, half-completed crossword stuffed inside.

When I first started doing the NYT crossword, I could barely make it through Monday and Tuesday. Now, even though I might be tearing my hair out by Saturday, I’m determined to do it every day (as the NYT crossword gets harder as the week progresses, my success is measured by which day I can complete without any ‘cheating’:))

My boys have tried to encourage me to extend my crossword mania to other puzzles – and, although I enjoy doing word problems and puzzles (in Australia I loved doing the daily word Target puzzle), I simply can’t come at any of the mathematical ones like Sudoku or KenKen. I think my mind just doesn’t work that way, and the amount of frustration experienced always outweighs any satisfaction I might feel when completing these kinds of puzzles. One day I hope to challenge myself and face the dreaded cryptic crossword…but so far the ability to process any of those clues has eluded me…

As I’ve progressed over time, I’ve discovered that I’ve developed a few crossword tics. The first of these is that I have to do it on paper and always in pen, never in pencil. Although I’ve tried doing the crossword online, it just doesn’t feel the same. Ditto when it comes to trying to complete it in pencil – I just can’t do it. I have to complete a crossword in ballpoint pen, even though I hate writing with these kinds of pens as a general rule (go figure..). So my crossword on a difficult day looks like a mess of pen marks, cross-outs and (more often than not) smears of vegemite toast fingers and coffee drips…exactly how I like it:)

I’ll probably be catching up on Sunday’s NYT crossword as well as tackling Monday’s crossword this holiday weekend. What about you, TKZers, what’s your favorite puzzle? Are you similarly crossword or puzzle obsessed?

Dear Diary…

The last time I kept a personal diary I was twelve years old. Since then I’ve kept various travel journals documenting trips and stays overseas, but I’ve never revisited the idea of keeping a personal diary. I know many writing teachers advise aspiring writers to keep a journal but, to be honest, I’ve never been very good at documenting the day-to-day. Recently, due to some health issues, my doctor said that it might be a good idea to journal but my immediate thought was ‘I’d much rather kill people off in a novel’…so obviously, for me, fiction is far more cathartic than diary entries!

In yesterday’s NYT Book Review there was an article about the German novelist, Christa Wolf, who kept a diary over 50 years recording the events of only one day each year – September 27th (the link to the article is here). Apparently she kept this diary until her death in 2011, jotting down everything she did and everyone she saw (even everything she ate) on that day. From the article, it sounds like she was a careful diarist rather than a confiding one – giving plenty of detail on the day, and some deep commentary on the meaning of time, but less in the way of sharing her innermost thoughts or emotions.

I’ve often wondered about writers who keep detailed journals or diaries and how they tackle the delicate balance of writing for themselves as well as writing in a medium that might ultimately be made public (especially if they become famous). I certainly admire anyone who has the discipline to keep a diary/journal as well as their other writing. I  would find maintaining a personal diary challenging – in part, because, I’d always feel a constraining hand, as if someone was reading the entries over my shoulder. I think I would censor my entries or indulge in creating a ‘fictionalized’ account of my life rather than being open and honest (this may also be why I find it hard to write anything in public areas like coffee shops – I need to have the absence of ‘others’ in order to write).

So TKZers, do any of you write a personal diary or journal on a regular basis? If so, how do you maintain the momentum for this? Do you censor or hold yourself back in any way? Do you find it helps your fiction writing? If, like me, you don’t write a journal or diary, why not?

Welcome 2017!

Welcome back TKZers!

Hope you all had a safe and happy holiday season and are ready to tackle all your writing resolutions in the year ahead. As always, I have a few resolutions after all my holiday eating, drinking and writing slackness, but in 2017 I want to focus on what I’m calling ‘deep writing’. For me, 2016 was definitely the year of ‘distracted writing’. It may have been all the politics or just the overwhelming onslaught of news, social media posts etc.,  but whatever the cause, I have now (thanks TKZ’s own James Scott Bell) purchased Cal Newport’s book ‘Deep Work, Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World‘ and intend to fully embrace the concept of ‘writing deeply’ this year.

Rather than calling this a New Year’s resolution, I’ve decided ‘write deeply‘ will be my mantra for 2017. I will be chanting it in my sleep by the end of January and, hopefully, I will notice an improvement in focus, concentration and maybe even the quality of my writing (!) by the end of the year.

So what about you? Do you have a mantra you would like to adopt for 2017?

Also any tips on how I can ensure mine gets through the post-holiday thickness of my skull, will be gratefully received….

The 5th Grade You

This week is my sons’ 5th grade continuation ceremony – an event that didn’t (at least when I was in 5th grade) have an equivalent in Australia – we simply said goodbye to primary school without much in the way of fanfare! Although, I didn’t grow up with this ceremony, I do appreciate the American way of recognizing milestones such as this, as it provides a  welcome opportunity for reflection as well as a celebration of all that has been accomplished (so far, at least…).

Marking the end of elementary school education is obviously a rite of passage and one that got me thinking about my own ‘5th grade’ self. What would I tell that girl if I had a chance to go back in time? I seem to remember that during my elementary years (primary school, as we call in in Australia) I was obsessed with becoming a scientist of some kind. I had chemistry kits, a microscope, telescope and various collections of minerals, stamps and coins. I adored animals, dinosaurs and couldn’t wait to learn about the stars…then came middle school and real science classes…which I loathed. So I guess the end of 5th grade was the end of that career dream! Although all through primary school I wrote stories and plays and poems, being a writer didn’t seem much like a career goal – more like a fun activity to while away the hours. Now elementary school is much more serious, with standardized tests, homework and far greater expectations than I ever had to deal with (we certainly had no formal state-mandated tests or homework!).

In some ways I mourn the loss of the elementary education I received – more because it seemed so unimportant at the time (I  never worried about report cards or grades).  If I could go back and talk to my 5th grade old self I would tell her to continue to enjoy the fact that school was something fun and (relatively) stress free – I would remind her how lucky she was to have the freedom to fail. I was fortunate I didn’t really need to concern myself with grades until much later in high school. I’m hoping to try to instill the same sense of perspective in my own boys but, sadly,  it’s a much more demanding world out there now.

As part of their 5th grade continuation ceremony, I was supposed to chose an appropriate dedication but, rather than embarrass my boys with typical ‘mum’ mush, I asked them to chose a quotation they thought was appropriate. Funnily enough they both chose a quote from Douglas Adams (author of a Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy). Jasper chose “The knack of flying is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.” While Sam opted for: “I may not have gone where I intended to go but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.”

I think my 5th grade self would have been pretty happy with either of these quotations!

What about you? What would you say to your 5th grade old self if you had the chance to go back in time? What quotation would you chose for your 5th grade continuation ceremony?



Facing Fears

As writers we all have a number of fears about our writing – most especially when facing the dreaded blank page (which I should have been overcoming this week but procrastinated instead!). I’m not often crippled by writer’s block but I am most certainly stalled by many a fear. Mostly that fear centers around writing some truly awful rubbish but I think deep down, it’s probably more the fear of being exposed as a fraud (you think you’re a writer, hah?!). I often wonder if bestselling or famous writers experience the same degree of fear or angst but, unless they suddenly morphed into arrogant, self-aggrandizing idiots, I suspect that whatever deep-seated fears they had as newbie writers still secretly plague them.

This week I found my fears became paralyzing – I wasn’t able to get back into my WIP as I have a completed project that is being digested by my agent and so my brain seemed fixated on that. No matter that the rational part of that same brain told me to cease worrying about things out of my control and to seize the pen and get down to the business of finishing the next manuscript (which, after all, is all outlined, partially written and ready for completion!!). Despite this, however, the other part of my brain – the part that harkens back to my primitive, fear-driven, ancestors – kept holding me back. As of writing this blog post, the rational part of my brain has just about reasserted control, safe in the knowledge that since I’m traveling to London this week, little can actually be accomplished writing wise (travel being the perfect excuse for further procrastination in the name of research!).

Strangely, although (as this week proves) I still get beset with writing angst, most of my initial fears regarding my writing have all but disappeared. I no longer worry that I can’t actually write a complete novel (since I’ve managed to do so numerous times, my brain has finally accepted I will be able to do so again) and I am less concerned with the crappy nature of my first drafts, as experience has told me I can usually manage to improve them with revision (even if that process sometimes seems endless). Of course, replacing these fears are many others, but at their heart they are probably more about flagging self-confidence than true, gut-wrenching fear (at least I hope so!).

In the current environment, many writers don’t have to deal with the traditional fears of not finding an agent or a publisher. These can be bypassed if a writer chooses, and indie publication is a route easily accessible for most, if not all, writers. Nonetheless, I’m sure fear for any writer never truly disappears.

So TKZers, what are your greatest fears when it comes to your writing? Do you worry about the quality of your work or finding a market for it? Do you hate facing the dreaded blank page or, for you, is there some other nagging fear about your writing that keeps you awake at night (or, like me, keeps you from getting your writing done?)