In this post FAQs How Writing Helps to Heal, I answer some of the most common questions I'm asked about using writing as a tool for healing trauma and emotional pain.
Does Writing Help Heal Trauma?
Short answer? Yes! If you need scientific proof, you'll find there are over 200 research studies confirming that expressive or ‘emotional’ writing can help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, and increase resilience. Take a look at these blogs on this topic: How does Writing Heal Trauma and The Healing Effect of Writing.
Why is that? It seems it's often easier to express feelings in writing than verbally—writing helps make sense of thoughts and emotions. As Louise DeSalvo says in her book Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives, ‘Creativity is a basic human response to trauma and a natural emergency defense system.’
So what is trauma writing?
Trauma writing is expressing and interpreting, through writing, your feelings, thoughts, and emotions around some traumatic event or life experience. In writing about these, you liberate deep-seated feelings, deal with your pain, discover forgiveness, and find hope, which all help the healing process.
What is Journalling Healing?
Healing through journalling means that you keep a journal to write about your thoughts and feelings to help yourself on your healing journey. However, it goes beyond simply offloading your thoughts and feelings on paper. It’s also about gaining awareness and insight into the thoughts and feelings that arise as you’re writing. Using journalling to heal, you may begin to recognise the triggers that set off particular patterns of behaviour.
What is Healing Writing?
Healing writing is a type of therapy that helps you express and process your thoughts and feelings (emotions) through writing. Research has found that expressing emotions through writing improves both psychological and physical health. The important thing is to use writing to help you understand and find meaning in a traumatic experience or memory.
Can you use writing to process trauma?
How Can You Process Trauma Through Writing?
You can make sense of traumatic experiences and events and feel an intense sense of relief when you express your feelings on paper.
- if your traumatic event is recent, to wait for a couple of months before writing about it, as you may find it re-triggers your grieving process
- to have support during the process—from loved ones, professional counsellors, a writing coach, etc.
- to write just for yourself initially, so you have the freedom to express yourself unreservedly
How Can You Start Emotional Healing with Writing?
When you lose a loved one, or lose part of yourself through a traumatic life event, writing can help heal the loss. Initially, write just for yourself. Later, you may decide you’d like to publish your writing, but for now, give yourself the time just to process. Tell your story; whether that be in novel, journal, poetry, short story, letter, or free-writing form. In telling your story, you begin to make sense of your challenging life experiences. This can lead to dealing with—processing—and then healing from those experiences.
If you're writing fiction, you may find this blog post on Writing Emotionally Difficult Scenes in Fiction helpful.
Isabel Allende, the Chilean-American writer, wrote about the loss of her beloved daughter Paula, who lingered in hospital in a coma for over twelve months. Her mother coped with that stressful and deeply upsetting time by writing her daughter letters, which eventually developed into Isabel's autobiography Paula.
Is Writing a Form of Therapy?
Yes, writing is a form of therapy because you are helping yourself. It's like becoming your own counsellor. In expressing yourself through writing, you guide yourself towards a greater understanding, acceptance, and awareness of the events and experiences that you have found traumatic or upsetting.
You may write freeform and capture these events exactly as you experienced them. Or, you may choose to be anyone you want, fictionalising yourself as a character. You can rewrite your history, journal how to have a difficult conversation with a friend or loved one, write a beautiful and moving poem, become a superhero in your own novel and save someone like you from being affected by similar experiences, talk to your long-dead grandmother ...
How Can I Get Help with My Writing?
If you've never written much before, or you struggle with how best to express yourself, you may find it very supportive to work with a writing coach in a small, nurturing, group setting. This is exactly why I have created my Writing to Heal: Metamorphosis program: to guide and support people like you through their writing to heal journey. If you would like to have a chat and find out more, book a free Discovery Call with me. I would love to chat with you about whether this program is the best option for you.
Is Writing Good for Depression?
Self-expression through writing can be good for depression. The disclaimer is that while research backs up its effectiveness in managing symptoms, depression cannot necessarily be cured through writing. By writing down your thoughts and feelings, you are taking control of them, putting them in perspective, and gaining a better understanding of what is troubling you. In so doing, writing can become an important coping mechanism. You may begin to notice patterns; how you feel at certain times of the day, or with certain people. Writing regularly is important. It's also important to really come to an understanding of what drives your depression.
While it may be beneficial to write down your negative thoughts, it is important to limit the time you spend on this. Maybe after writing them down, even throw away the writing. What you are ultimately aiming for is to shift the negativity and come to an understanding of your depression. Remember that for now, you are writing for your eyes only.
What are the 5 Stages of Grieving and How can Writing Help with Each?
Some people refer to five stages of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression or sadness, and acceptance. Some add guilt as a further stage. Nevertheless, grief cannot be bundled into a tidy package. Different people will have different feelings at different times when grieving, so this is intended as a general response only.
Writing when you’re in the denial phase is helpful because often at this early stage you feel overwhelmed and just want to be alone. Writing gives you an outlet for what you might normally share with those close to you.
During the anger stage, it’s really important to process your anger, not deny it. Writing helps to express that anger. Alongside writing, you can also use various embodiment therapies (such as punching pillows as a physical outlet).
Guilt is anger internalised. You beat yourself up thinking you could have done something to prevent the situation you are grieving. So, in writing down why you feel guilty, you can begin to process the irrational thoughts and heal the guilt.
With the third stage, bargaining, you are wishing for the impossible: to bring back the person you have lost by saying things like ‘if they come back, I’ll give up alcohol/smoking’. By writing down your 'bargains', you can give them a voice while understanding that they are impossible desires.
In the fourth stage, depression or sadness, you may again feel overwhelmed and want to withdraw from the world. It’s important to let yourself feel sad—it’s not ‘bad’. Without your usual circle of support around you, writing helps you work through your sadness. You may write about things you did with your loved one, conversations you had, memories of your times together.
The fifth stage, acceptance, doesn’t mean you’re now ‘cured’ of your grief or that you feel ‘okay’. It means that you begin accepting the reality that your loved one is physically gone and recognising it as a permanent reality. Writing during this phase may help you learn to live with it. You might use your writing to explore how your life now needs to look without this person in it, including reorganising roles.
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