Do you want to learn how to write about traumatic events?
Need to heal from trauma through the writing process?
Would you like to help others by writing about traumatic events?
If you’ve had a traumatic event in your life, chances are you may not have entirely healed from what happened. You may be harboring resentment, guilt, anger or any number of emotions because of your past experience. This is completely normal and is part of the process of coming to terms with the event and moving on with your life. Writing about a traumatic event can play a large role in your healing process.
In fact, cognitive therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder PTSD, encourages four steps to process and heal from a traumatic occurrence.
- Talk about what happened
- Write about the traumatic event
- Visit/view the location(s) of the event
- Discriminate between the original trauma warnings and current, non-traumatic triggers
Why Writing May Help You Recover from a Trauma
Living in the aftermath of a traumatic event, natural disasters, combat-related PTSD, psychological trauma, a life-threatening illness, sexual abuse or sexual assault, verbal abuse or violence can be painful. Some people suffer from continued distress, post-traumatic stress, anxiety disorder, mental health issues, dissociative disorders, depression, and even suicidal thoughts. You can try to suppress your thoughts, memories, and emotions, but they will always want to come to the surface. Like a floating bath toy, push it under water and it will always pop back up.
The best way to resolve issues surrounding post traumatic events is to process them—and not just on the surface but fully and deeply. Writing on your own personal experiences can be very cathartic. Meanwhile, it’s important to remember that your thoughts may be fragmented. So, piecing them together in a cohesive way will help you come to terms with your experiences.
Relieving traumatic stress through writing is one of the best gifts to give yourself. This is not a process to rush through or glaze over. It’s important to take your time and feel everything. The process of meeting your painful memories, with insightful and emotional disclosure, can help put them aside and help you to move forward with your life in a positive direction..
When you are writing about traumatic memories, you are going through the writing process only for yourself. You can take comfort in knowing that no one may ever read what you write. You can keep what you write for any length of time that you choose. You can dispose of it when you wish. Or you can store it to read again periodically—or never touch again. The choice is completely yours.
It’s understandable that writing about traumatic events can be difficult and sometimes extremely painful emotionally. But many people experience amazing benefits as a result of the writing process. Various studies have shown that patients who have processed their psychological trauma fully through writing suffer from fewer illnesses, visited the doctor less often, and experience fewer symptoms of depression. In general, they experience greater psychological well-being, as well as, improved emotional well-being. They were less likely to miss school or work, and their job performance and attention levels increased. Therapeutic writing contributed to better physical health. These effects have been known to last for months and even years after the writing process. However, it may be best not to expect certain results as you are writing or after your finish your writing. Just focus on your writing and your memories, and let any other benefits be a surprise to you later.
- Don’t rush.
- Take the time to feel everything.
- Do it for you.
- Store or dispose of your writings as you wish.
- Let go of any expectations.
When Should My Story Begin and End?
If you are writing about a single event, it may be best to begin your story right before things started to go wrong. If you are writing about multiple events, then you may want to start with the most traumatic event that you can recall and continue to write about other incidents. In the case of multiple events, it may not be necessary to write about every event. Just take the time to tell the story of the most important events that will help with your healing. Another option when writing about multiple traumatic events is to create a timeline to help keep you organized during the writing and thinking process.
Really, there aren’t any rules about how to write, when to write, and where to write. For example, you don’t have to tell the story of every event in chronological order. Maybe you want to start with the most traumatic event first. Perhaps you want to write about the least traumatic event first, or simply write as thoughts occur to you.
Should I Write in Present Tense or Past Tense?
Again, the same principle applies here. Write how you feel most comfortable. Some therapists recommend that you write using the present tense. That way, you are writing as if the events are occurring again in the present rather than keeping them in the past. Your thoughts and descriptions can be more vivid and emotional. Writing in the present tense may be more therapeutic and get you on the road to faster healing. Our best suggestion is to do what feels most comfortable to you. This isn’t a college essay. It’s a personal exercise meant for you and you alone. Should you choose to share what you write, that’s up to you.
Should I Write Using Pen and Paper or a Computer?
Your preference in writing methods is up to you. If you decide to write by hand, you may want to leave extra space to go back and fill in with more information. You may want to write on every other line, leave space in the margins for additional writing or leave several lines blank after each paragraph.
If you decide to write with a computer or tablet, then you don’t need to worry about spacing. However, we caution you not to get caught up in correcting spelling, punctuation, grammar, etc. Again, this is not a paper to be turned into a teacher. Your writing is purely just for you. So, write away to your heart’s content. Just let it loose so you can let it go.
Should My Writing Be Structured?
Unlike more formalized writing, a structured writing process is not necessary when you are writing about traumatic events. You may want to write a continuous recollection, or you may want to write your thoughts, feelings, and memories in a journal or diary format with daily memories that need not be reorganized. You don’t need to write in order of events and you don’t need to write with any particular style. Actually, stream of consciousness writing usually works best. And most people find it the most beneficial and therapeutic.
So, what is stream of consciousness writing? It’s when you write without a filter. Simply write what you think when you are thinking it. Write what you feel when you are feeling it. Don’t stop to think about what you are writing. Just put pen to paper—or fingers to the keyboard—and write or tap away. If you want to go back later and organize thoughts, you can. However, while you’re writing, just focus on getting your thoughts and feelings out as they occur to you.
How Often Should I Write?
How often you write is also up to you. You don’t have to write every day or even every week. You may want to write at the same time each day or only when the mood strikes you. Usually it’s best not to force yourself into a writing schedule, but to write when the memories occur. Keep a pen and notebook handy when you’re out as well as at your bedside so that you can record your thoughts immediately when they present themselves to you.
And if you don’t consider yourself a good writer, don’t worry. The process of exposing your memories of a traumatic event is only for your benefit. You don’t have to share your writing with anyone at any time. However, you may find that like any other kind of practice, your writing does improve over time.
Click here for some beginner’s expressive writing tips.
How Do I Recover Lost Memories?
Some people who have experienced traumatic events may block all or part of the memories from their consciousness. So, it is possible that you may not know everything about what you have experienced—at least in conscious thought. As human beings, we do retain all of our memories. Some of these memories may be less accessible or they can go dormant for a while. Some memories can be suppressed for months, years or decades. So how do you access these hidden memories so that you can fully recover?
Two main methods may work in terms of bringing up painful childhood memories or suppressed memories: recall and recognition. The writing process itself is part of the recall process. As you begin putting words on paper, you may begin to remember more. Some people may also try therapy or hypnosis to help recall lost memories.
Sometimes handling an object that is associated with the traumatic event or another person involved in the traumatic event can trigger memories. This is called recognition. Another option using recognition is to visit the scene of the traumatic event or look at pictures of the area. The visual stimulation may be enough to bring back forgotten memories. It’s like going home to unearth trauma.
Don’t worry if you can’t recall everything. Memories may return like pieces of a puzzle. And although you may complete most of the puzzle, there may always be some missing pieces. Those memories can return at a later date, or they may never return. Either way, it’s a normal part of the process. So, try not to be discouraged if you can’t remember every detail, or if your brain is still blocking a memory from your conscious self. This is your brain’s innate way of protecting you from what you may not be able to handle yet. So, give yourself a break if you can’t remember everything.
Ways to remember lost memories…
- Handling an associated object
- Returning to the scene
- Viewing photographs
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Remembering Your Traumatic Experience
Emotions from childhood trauma or any other traumatic event can be complex and confusing. There is no single tried and true method or pattern of remembering a traumatic experience. But there are a few things to keep in mind as you do move through the writing and recalling process.
First, it’s important to remember at your own pace. Memories may come back to you slowly in bits and pieces, or they may all come back in a flood. Either way is normal. If you get overwhelmed with your returning memories, it’s OK to take a break and come back to your emotions and the writing when you are ready again. Returning memories can create a list of difficult emotions: grief, anger, disbelief, fear, shame, and rage as well as feeling inadequate, conflicted, like a failure or like nothing you know will ever be the same again.
Give yourself the time and space to remember and feel as you are capable. Explore your thoughts and feelings as they come. Feel them fully and deeply. Hiding from these emotions will not help in your recovery process. You are under no time schedule, and you don’t have to report to anyone about your progress. The writing and recalling process will take as long as it takes—weeks, months or years.
- Remember at your own pace.
- Memories can return slowly or in a flood.
- It’s OK to take a break.
- Give yourself time and space to feel.
- Explore your thoughts and feelings as they come.
- Feely everything fully and deeply.
- Don’t hide from your emotions.
- This is all just for you.
- Take as long as you need: days, weeks, months or years.
Writing for Post-Traumatic Growth
When you’re done writing and you’ve remembered all you can remember—at least for now—it’s time to evaluate what you’ve written. Know that the past is just that—the past. It’s behind you. The trauma is over and won’t happen again. You are now in control, and it’s time to look forward. Think about what your blessings are now. What are you grateful for? What do you appreciate? What brings you joy? What gifts do you have in your life now? What have you accomplished—no matter how small? How do you feel safe today?
It’s time to move toward emotional closure. Let the light in through appreciation, affection, and affirmation. You may want to write a letter to those involved so you can release the rest of your negative feelings. You may not want to send the letter, but simple write it as a personal exercise.
Focus on the positive and try to let your negative past go. Avoid letting your past determine your future. You can decide what you want your future to look like. You may want to visit with a psychologist or mental health professional to help you through the rest of your recovery.
Writing is a great way to experience therapeutic relief from traumatic experiences. Here’s what you need to remember for post-traumatic growth.
- Know that the past is just that—the past.
- The trauma is over and won’t happen again.
- You are now in control.
- What are your blessings?
- What are you grateful for?
- What do you appreciate?
- What brings you joy?
- What gifts do you have in your life now?
- What have you accomplished—no matter how small?
- How do you feel safe today?
- Let the light in through appreciation, affection, and affirmation.
- Release your negative feelings.
- Focus on the positive.
- Let your past go.
- Avoid letting your past determine your future.
- You can decide what you want your future to look like.
- Visit with a psychologist or psychotherapist to help you through your recovery.
Sharing Your Trauma
As we’ve said previously, this exercise of writing about traumatic events is purely for your benefit. No one ever has to read what you write. But what if you do want to share what you’ve written?
Should you include traumatic events in your life story? How about in obituaries or eulogies? Is it ever good to write about traumatic events for public or family events? Well that all depends from one situation to the next. If your revelation would be shocking or disturbing to family members or others, you may want to avoid sharing your trauma. Is it something that you want to be remembered for? Or do you want to be remembered for the more positive occurrences in your life? Take your feelings into consideration as well as the feelings of others. Also, really examine your reasons for wanting to share or not wanting to share. Whatever you decide, you’ll want to make sure that it’s for the right reasons.
We wish you amazing healing in your journey.