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Writing about trauma: why self care matters

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Photo by Yoksel 🌿 Zok / Unsplash

Writing can be a powerful tool for healing our past trauma, but it can also be painful, distressing, or triggering to connect to the emotions around those experiences.

This post is the first in a three-part series. Next we'll look at practical tips and resources for self care when you are writing about difficult experiences. In the final part we'll look at how to take care of yourself and others when you share your writing.

What is trauma?

At its root, the word trauma means 'wound'. Trauma is caused by experiences of overwhelming fear or pain that we are unable to absorb and process.

In their book Trauma (which they have made available free on their website along with a host of other resources) therapeutic writer Meg-John Barker highlights the two elements which create trauma:

1) A key event, or accumulation of events, which is frightening, shameful or otherwise painful to us (whether or not it would be to other people in similar circumstances, it’s about the meaning for us)
2) Not receiving the support we need in order to process the event or events (which usually means having somebody to hold us and hear us in our distress, reflecting it back in ways that reassure us that it is understandable and help us to tolerate it)

Everyone experiences trauma at some point in their life, perhaps from bereavement, illness, relationship breakdown, bullying, abuse, discrimination, or violence. If we are not supported to process our trauma it can develop into long term conditions such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

How can we heal trauma?

According to psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman, there are three primary stages for treatment and healing after trauma:

  • to restore safety
  • to remember
  • to restore social connections.

Herman stresses that:

“The core experiences of psychological trauma are disempowerment and disconnection from others. Recovery, therefore, is based upon the empowerment of the survivor and the creation of new connections.”

Why we write

In almost every writing group or class I've been in, no matter the subject, and spanning all formats and genres, writers have been in some way working with challenging or traumatic experiences from their own lives. I've certainly felt powerfully drawn to write about my own experiences, and I expect I will keep returning to them.

As writers, we are always using material from our own lives, even when writing about people or places that are completely different to us. But I think the urge to write about our trauma goes deeper than that.

Traumatic events are recorded in the brain as fragmented, emotionally charged, nonverbal memories. The way that we translate these images and feelings into words can affect how we think about our trauma and help us to integrate our experiences.

In The Mind’s Eye – Image and Memory in Writing About Trauma Marian Mesrobian MacCurdy says:

"Writing about trauma removes the experience from the inarticulate parts of the brain and puts it in contact with the more cognitive areas, allowing the impression of control over the trauma, even if that control is only linguistic. Whereas traumatic memories feel as though they are passively endured, narratives are the result of certain obvious choices (how much to tell whom, in what order etc.) The memories no longer control us; we can move them around, call them up when and if we wish because they are now a part of our consciousness."

The writing process can give us a feeling of regaining control, even when we're not writing directly about the trauma we’ve experienced. James W. Pennebaker and Amina Memon write in Recovered Memories in Context that writing trauma supports healing because the writer controls the process themselves and is not dependent on other people to do it.

There's also significance simply in the act of speaking our truth. In Writing as a Way of Healing, Louise De Salvo describes the importance of expressing ourselves, if only for ourselves, and the healing power of not being quiet any more.

And of course many writers are drawn to explore and share stories of trauma and recovery in the hope that they will be able to help others to know that they are not alone, and perhaps even to understand and begin to heal their own wounds.

Why safety is important

Creating safety and stability is the crucial first step in healing trauma.

While writing can support healing, it's not a replacement for therapy or other treatment. Herman suggests, in fact, that a person who suffers from PTSD should not attempt to recreate their trauma without professional support, because it may be re-traumatising in the wrong circumstances.

However, many people are drawn to writing regardless of what other support they have access to; for instance if they don’t receive the help they need from public healthcare and other agencies. Sometimes writing is the only tool available.

Writing is a way to open up and bring forward our innermost selves. But that means it can also bring powerful emotions and disturbing thoughts to the surface. In Writing to Heal – a Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma and Emotional Upheaval Pennebaker says of writing about difficult life experiences or charged memories:

“One’s mood changes immediately after writing. Feeling sad is normal. Immediately after writing about traumatic topics, people often feel worse. These effects are generally short term. Being aware of this effect is extremely important."

It's common to feel grief, anger, fear, loneliness, or shame after writing about traumatic experiences, and if we are flooded or overwhelmed by these feelings they can trigger a flashback, or re-traumatise us.

Self care when writing about trauma

This is why we need to practice self care to be able to write safely. After our experiences with trauma, we may feel – consciously or unconsciously – that we aren’t worthy of care and self care. We may not have experienced care. In the past other people may have violated our boundaries and harmed our self-worth.

In Writing as a Way of Healing DeSalvo says:

“Only if we know that we are safe when we write can the writing help us heal. As we work, we must move forward slowly and carefully and constantly pay attention to our reactions. With time we can write about whatever we want, no matter how painful. But only when we feel relatively safe.”

By noticing how our thoughts and feelings move within us as we write, what it feels like in our body, and how we feel afterwards, we are gathering information about what works for us as writers and what we need.

For example, after writing we may feel restless, and want to take a walk to allow ourselves to process and then release our feelings. Or we may feel lost and need to talk to someone. These observations can help us establish safe and sustainable writing routines.

In the next post I'll share some resources about how to write about trauma safely.

Adapted in part from Write Your Self's trauma-sensitive writing guidance.