For the past two months, physicians, nurses and occupational therapists at the University Hospital of North Tees in England have engaged in atypical activities. Every three weeks, they trade their masks, gloves and stethoscopes for a pen—and write about their thoughts, memories and feelings.

The two-hour online sessions, led by Siobhan Campbell, a senior lecturer of creative writing at Open University in England, begin with simple warm-up exercises— “rhyming the unrhymable” or looking back into one’s childhood through an imaginary window. Then, Campbell gives the participants a writing prompt to use during, or after, the session. “You’re invited to express yourself,” says Campbell, who acknowledges such display of expression isn’t typically part of a physician’s workday. Some prompts invite participants to imagine what it’s like being someone else—another rare experience that allows frontline workers to step outside of their hectic environment. “People are enjoying it,” she adds.

The COVID-19 pandemic pushed medical professionals beyond their physical and emotional limits. According to a Medscape survey of 7,500 physicians worldwide, 64 percent suffered from increased burnout, 44 percent indicated the pandemic stressed their personal lives, and depending on the country a third to a half reported feeling lonely. To cope with these unprecedented challenges, hospitals, clinics and individual healthcare providers are searching for ways to reduce stress, sometimes using untraditional methods. Although not a mainstream technique, writing can help alleviate stress, particularly in inviting, nonjudgmental, collegial settings. “Providing the opportunity to write in a group, in this particular way,” Campbell says, “can add to the sense of well-being.”

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Campbell developed the workshop with Meg Jensen, professor of English literature and creative writing at Kingston University London, modeling it after similar techniques she had used to help war victims recuperate from trauma. The sessions seem to work—participants say the exercises help them get through the day and maintain life-work balance. Some are even considering adapting the techniques to use with their own patients who need physical and emotional healing due to COVID-19.  “Nurses, doctors and particular occupational therapist are interested in how they can bring these practices to their patient relationship,” says Campbell. 

Rezvan Ameli, a psychologist at the National Institutes of Health in Washington D.C., says that mindful meditation—a simple technique that focuses one’s mind on what’s happening at a given moment—can also help alleviate stress. “Usually, our minds tend to focus on the past or the future,” says Ameli. “Thoughts about the past can cause regrets and thoughts about the future can cause anxiety.” Mindfulness helps focus on savoring the moment, whether it’s enjoying the taste of food or the sensation of a cool shower, thus producing a sense of calm. Ameli’s study, recently published in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA), observed the effects of a brief mindfulness-based program on healthcare professionals, and concluded that it indeed can help reduce stress. 

Writing or meditating aren’t the only ways to mediate stress. Listening to music, drawing or photographing nature are other practices that individuals can engage in. “There’s no one-fits-all approach, but breathing techniques, exercise, sleep, rest, social connection and meditation do help reduce stress,” Ameli says. “It’s a match between the person and the technique.”