Mental Health

Beginning to heal from trauma through writing
By Dr Malvina Bartmanski on June 02, 2024
Can you heal from trauma through writing?
Writing can be regarded as a form of expressive therapy and a useful introspective practice. It is a good adjunct to other methods from healing from trauma. Personally, I don’t think it is possible to heal through trauma through writing alone, but this is certainly a good way to start. I believe this can be a good add-on to assist gaining insight, as well as allowing one to empty the mind of distressing thoughts. Trauma is a physiological experience, and thus trauma memory is not only stored in a cognitive manner but also as a physical imprint in the body.
Dr Malvina Bartmanski Writing.jpeg
Can you heal from trauma through writing?
Therefore, to heal from trauma it is necessary to access pent up nervous system energy that is stuck due to incomplete fight, flight, and freeze responses that take place during traumatic experiences. One needs to shake, shiver, and cry this pent-up energy out of the body to re-regulate the nervous system back into equilibrium. Writing after these kinds of body-based trauma psychotherapy sessions can allow for much insight being gained, and ‘aha’ moments as it can lead to self-reflection.
Writing is a useful manner in which to bring to the surface unconscious trauma memories, and journaling daily could also assist in illuminating one’s triggers, patterns and beliefs (which are rooted in past traumatic experiences).
Writing about trauma can provide one with various benefits:
  • The ability to find meaning that leads to positive life changes following a traumatic event
  • A way to integrate the traumatic experience in the present
  • Assist in moving emotions and experiences of out the mind – it can assist in coping with distressing experiences and provide emotional regulation and relief
  • Being a more cognitive process, writing can also move one away from the turbulent emotions as it shifts the brain from the emotional or trauma centre in the brain to cognitive cortical functioning.
Some techniques for trauma healing through writing…
Journaling is my personal favourite, and an activity I practice myself. Journaling can be done in a free form writing format (stream of consciousness) where you simply spontaneously write anything and everything that drifts into your mind, or it can be guided by journal prompts. Refrain from self-criticism and self-blame during writing as this may be counterproductive. Later reading through what you have written can provide a wealth of insight. Some useful journal prompts:
  • Write about a negative belief you have that you know is false. Write about why it isn’t true.
  • Write about your safe space including what it means to you and how you created it.
  • List at least 5 positive things the trauma has had on your life.
  • Write about what forgiveness means to you.
  • Write a letter to yourself (it could be your older self, the current you, or your younger self)
  • Write about a trauma response that you’re currently processing and how it affects your life.
  • Write a summary of your day.
  • Write about the challenges you faced today and how you overcame them.
  • Write about at least one thing you learned today and would not want to forget.
  • Write about the symptoms you experienced today and how did you manage them.
  • List the self-care practices you engaged in today.
  • Do you believe that your trauma is holding you back from moving forward in life? Write about how it makes you feel.
  • Write about how you can show yourself the same understanding, compassion, and kindness as you would your loved one.
  • Write about the ways you still have healing to do.
  • List 5 things, people, or places that make you feel safer.
  • Write about the ways you’ve persevered despite the trauma you’ve experienced.
  • Write about your fears as a child, teenager, and adult and how you coped with them.
  • Write about your childhood. How was it when you were growing up? Was your childhood home stable or abusive?
  • Write about the relationship between your parents and yourself. How has their influence impacted your life?
  • Write about one thing you wish your loved one understood about you.
  • Write about the event that triggers your flight or fight response the most.
  • Write about the kind of support you needed when you were growing up but felt you did not receive.
In my practice, at the initiation of psychotherapy I request that patients write down their life stories focussing on all the traumatic, distressing, embarrassing, and difficult events of their lives. I suggest dividing this up by age, schooling, places you have lived or perhaps an alternative manner that resonates with you to assist you in eliciting this information. Please be careful in writing this if you planning to do this outside of a psychotherapy process, as this can flood you with emotions that might be difficult to digest all at once. I suggest to patients to journal through the psychotherapy process, perhaps even daily, and especially when negative emotions are coming up to assist with regulating and releasing these feelings. I also recommend patients take notes in their phones when triggers come up in daily life, or when there are fleeting memories from past experiences that enter their mind.
Many psychologists, especially ones using approaches such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), or Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) may use worksheets during the psychotherapy process to perhaps identify negative beliefs or solidify and reinforce coping strategies. Having these down on paper often assists with clarity and commitment. There are wonderful books available here with work sheets to guide a healing process. The Dialectical Behaviour Therapy Skills Workbook by Mckay, Wood & Brantley is a useful one to assist with coping skills and emotional regulation.
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Resources for healing from trauma that may assist you in your writing…

For the trauma writers I can recommend books by Peter Levine (In an Unspoken Voice), Gabor Mate (In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Myth of Normal), Bessel Van Der Kolk (The Body Keeps the Score), Oprah (What Happened to You), and Mark Wolynn (It Didn’t Start with You).

A good resource for writing to heal from trauma is The Story You Need to Tell: Writing to Heal from Trauma, Illness or Loss where Sandra Marinella shares stories of healing, as well as her own story of using journaling and expressive writing to heal from breast cancer and postpartum depression. She suggests various techniques, prompts, and exercises to unravel and make sense of what is going on inside. When reading about trauma, make sure you can ground yourself after and seek support as this can be quite dysregulating.

I really like the SARK books as a means of assisting people with self-expression – these are books that are highly inspirational, and light-hearted that can connect one back to the positive aspects of life. The Artist’s Way is a magical book by Julia Cameron that provides a guided journaling process that allows one to learn how to journal and access deeper parts of the self, often having the result of reconnecting a person back to their creativity (often things that are lost after the experience of trauma).
“Feel it. The thing that you don’t want to feel. Feel it. And be free.”
Nayyirah Waheed

And finally…

Writing is a form of self-care and perhaps it can be useful beyond trauma, as a means of a daily emptying of the mind. There is no doubt it allows you to better understand your thoughts and emotions better. Putting your feelings into words, allows you to gain insight on what is causing them and can help you work through them. When you write your thoughts and emotions, you release them from the mind onto paper. It can also be useful in ordering, planning and structuring your life; tracking symptoms and difficulties; helping prioritize problems or concerns; identify negative thought patterns and perhaps also remembering what you are grateful for. As it is a private process, it really allows you to access your authentic self – often to an even greater extent that in the therapy room as there is no fear of judgement.
Dr Malvina Bartmanski is an integrative clinical psychologist in private practice. She dominantly works with trauma and autoimmune conditions in her practice. She has authored the book “Autoimmune Survival Guide,” which is available on Takealot, Amazon and in most major bookstores around South Africa. She also runs wellness safaris.
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