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The Healing Power of Writing

By February 28, 2024No Comments


When we’re traumatized by something, there are things that we can do to be able to bounce back as best as we can. One of those things is writing. I’ll get to the specific action in a minute, but first let me clarify a few things.

When I say “bounce back,” I don’t mean “just pretend that everything’s okay.” There are experiences that are so horrible that we really never completely bounce back from them. But we can do things that will make our situation worse, and things we can do that can make them better.

Something that can make a trauma – or even just a troubling conflict or major life change – worse is to keep it a secret. We tend to keep secrets of things that we’re ashamed of, and trauma can often be accompanied by a sense of shame. What I’ll be showing you can help you through a part of that.

It’s important to distinguish “keeping a secret” from having appropriate boundaries. There’s a time and a place to share our experience with others; and it matters who those others are. Telling anybody and everybody about our traumatic or troubling experience can be intrusive and presumptuous, and can set us up for an awful experience as well.

That said, one of the most harmful things we can do if we’ve experienced trauma is to hold it completely inside, trying to make believe that it didn’t happen, and keeping it a secret.

Now here’s what we can do instead.

…well, let’s start with what not to do: we should not go into the details of a trauma when it first occurs.

There are interventions, such as Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) that ask a traumatized person to talk about their feelings and experience right away after a trauma. These actually do more harm than good for most people. They can cement the events into a story that makes it harder to find any sense in what happened; and that can lead to a feeling of greater fragility and vulnerability.

There is a natural process of psychological healing that people have gone through throughout human history, but it takes time. We integrate, we protect ourselves, we cry, we wrestle with feelings and fears, we talk with people we trust.

This might take a few months, but for most of us, the symptoms of trauma dissipate over time. Humankind has had an incredibly violent history; we as a species are well versed in dealing with trauma. That said, trauma can also linger and interfere with our lives in subtle or not so subtle ways. We understand how trauma works, and how to heal from it, much better than ever before, so it’s worth seeking help it this is the case with you.

But there is something that you can do that, while it may not completely heal a trauma, has been shown to make a difference, courtesy of Dr. James Pennebaker, author of Writing To Heal:

After some time has passed, after you have some distance from the event, write about it, without interruption, for at least 15 minutes a day for three or four consecutive days. It’s best if you do this at the end of the day, if possible.

This will help you to make sense of any confusing or upsetting thoughts, feelings, or experiences. It will help you to express what’s happening – if only to yourself – so that you’re not keeping this a secret. And it can help you to integrate and find meaning in the experience.

Writing about a trauma or difficult time like this can make it easier to talk about it with others – certain others in whom you can trust and confide, if and when it’s appropriate. Having written about a trauma can make it easier to talk about it in a way that is helpful, rather than just flooding into the intensity of the memories.

The method works not just with recent traumas, but old ones as well, even those that have haunted us since childhood.

This isn’t magic; you won’t be free of all troubles for having done this. It is a tool that can help you to get to a stronger, less worrisome place, so you can get on with your life.

(There are also ways that the traumatic activation can stay active within our systems, affecting how we see and experience the world. I go into much more detail about this in my Mastering Emotions, Moods and Reactions course and workbook.)

PS: I currently have some openings available for life coaching. Go to my website to sign up for a free 30-minute initial conversation.