A guest post by Wanda Sanchez and Shelly Beach
This week a close friend named Rachel (not her real name) experienced a horrible trauma. Rachel is a writer, and she immediately grabbed a notebook and began pouring out the story of what happened to her, hoping writing would help bring clarity from the chaos.
Rachel’s instincts are correct. Many medical studies indicate that writing helps bring healing from trauma (James Pennebaker, Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions and a study by psychologists Sonja Lyubomirsky and K.M. Sheldon, Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change, to name a few).
Writing helps hurting people cope. But why does writing help, and where do we start?
What happens during a traumatic event
Trauma occurs when a terrifying or life-threatening event overwhelms the brain’s ability to cope. The left side of the brain, which problem solves and organizes events within the past, present, and future, temporarily shuts down. With the left side out of commission, the event is encoded and stored in the right side of the brain, where memories are filed in the here-and-now in bits and pieces, instead of the logical, linear way the left side of the brain stores memories.
This causes flashbacks, re-experiencing, triggers, and other symptoms that can make daily life like walking through a field of land mines for a trauma survivor. For those who develop PTSD, their trauma experience becomes an ever-present, inescapable part of life.
How writing heals: rewriting the brain
Writing accomplishes several vital roles in healing the brain. First of all, writing provides way of putting the traumatic experience back into a sequence visually while also using neuro-motor skills as the eyes and hand write out or type out the event, then feed that event back into both sides of the brain as the writer reads through their story during the writing/editing process. This process gives both sides of the brain the opportunity to absorb and re-shape the story with a beginning, middle, and end.
The opportunity for healing is further enhanced if the writer draws out the sequence of events, much like the frames of a movie, then has someone re-tell the story to them, adding elements of classic trauma response (startle/freeze/automatic obedience/thwarted intentions/altered state of consciousness/body sensations/self-repair), and giving the story an ending (for instance, survival, resilience, courage).
This kind of writing helps a person see their story as an observer of their experience and to gain compassion for themselves. It also rewires the brain, as the story is re-entered into the left side of the brain visually, verbally, and kinesthetically.
How writing heals: perspective from our wiser self
Jan Fishler, author, speaker, writing coach, and creator/presenter of writing workshops, tells about the role writing played in her recovery from trauma.
Fishler states, “I’d repeated my adoption story many times without the benefit of healing the abandonment issues that were the foundation of my trauma. It wasn’t the act of putting pen to paper (actually spending hours at the computer), recalling memories as they came up and turning them into scenes. The real healing didn’t begin until my older, wiser self began to make sense of my situation, filling the gaps between scenes with a perspective that comes only from wisdom and age. In my case, this happened quite by accident.”
One of the most healing aspects of writing is the process of transformation and resolution that comes when incomplete, unprocessed, and unresolved traumatic experiences are given new significance by a wiser self that speaks a new ending to our old story. Writing gives us the opportunity for our broken to “parts” gain insight from the parts of us that grow past and learn from the trauma.
Where to begin
If you don’t know where to begin, start with journaling. Record your experiences as if you’re a reporter. Don’t worry about evaluating or judging them.
At some point, begin to explore the deeper questions. For instance, Why? You will discover that the answer often becomes secondary to discovering who you are as you explore the answer.
Write to discover the small stories that have shaped your life and defined who you are.
Write to discover and celebrate your strengths. Trauma assaults our sense of value and dignity. Write to re-discover and claim it. Then continue the journey—not as an exercise, but as a journey to growth and freedom.
Shelly Beach and Wanda Sanchez
Co-Authors of Love Letters from the Edge: Meditations for Those Struggling from Brokenness, Trauma, and the Pain of Life
Co-Founders of PTSDPerspectives.org