Writing Can Help Us Heal from Trauma

Writing Can Help Us Heal from Trauma

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Why does a writing intervention work? While it may seem counterintuitive that writing about negative experiences has a positive effect, some have posited that narrating the story of a past negative event or an ongoing anxiety “frees up” cognitive resources. Research suggests that trauma damages brain tissue, but that when people translate their emotional experience into words, they may be changing the way it is organized in the brain. This matters, both personally and professionally. In a moment still permeated with epic stress and loss, we need to call in all possible supports. So, what does this look like in practice, and how can you put this powerful tool into effect? The author offers three practices, with prompts, to get you started.

Even as we inoculate our bodies and seemingly move out of the pandemic, psychologically we are still moving through it. We owe it to ourselves — and our coworkers — to make space for processing this individual and collective trauma. A recent op-ed in the New York Times Sunday Review affirms what I, as a writer and professor of writing, have witnessed repeatedly, up close: expressive writing can heal us.

A certain kind of guided, detailed writing can not only help us process what we’ve been through and assist us as we envision a path forward; it can lower our blood pressure, strengthen our immune systems, and increase our general well-being. Expressive writing can result in a reduction in stress, anxiety, and depression; improve our sleep and performance; and bring us greater focus and clarity.

These effects of writing as a tool for healing are well documented. James Pennebaker, a social psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, studied the impact of a certain kind of writing on mental health in 1986. Since then, over 200 research studies have reported that “emotional writing” can improve people’s physical and emotional health. In classic studies, subjects who wrote about personal upheavals for 15 minutes a day over three or four days visited doctors for health concerns less frequently and reported greater psychological well-being. According to a 2019 study, a six-week writing intervention increases resilience, and decreases depressive symptoms, perceived stress, and rumination among those reporting trauma in the past year. Thirty-five percent of the participants who began the program with indicators of likely clinical depression ended the program no longer meeting this criterion.

Why does a writing intervention work? While it may seem counterintuitive that writing about negative experiences has a positive effect, some have posited that narrating the story of a past negative event or an ongoing anxiety “frees up” cognitive resources. Research suggests that trauma damages brain tissue, but that when people translate their emotional experience into words, they may be changing the way it is organized in the brain.

This matters, both personally and professionally. In a moment still permeated with epic stress and loss, we need to call in all possible supports. Mental health researchers document “significant” mental health strains among employees at every level within organizations and across industries, increased anxiety and depression being the most prevalent. Depression among adults has increased three-fold since the pandemic began.

In the face of recession and racial and economic disparities, some are “disincentivized to speak openly and honestly about their stress and frustration” out of fear — or guilt — according to Ashley Whillans, a behavioral psychologist at Harvard Business School who recently surveyed 44,000 remote workers in 44 U.S. states and 88 countries to study how the pandemic is affecting workplace attitudes and behaviors. Others cope by adopting a relativism approach, comparing themselves to people who seem to be worse off. We know the virus’s impact has varied physically, socially, and economically, with Black and Brown communities having suffered disproportionately and working mothers taking a particular hit in stress and mental load. Those who’ve suffered profoundly — whether they’ve lost income, loved ones, well-being — may not wish to chat about it casually with coworkers for fear that those who didn’t experience that level of loss and are now rushing to parties and vacations can’t relate.

But what may be difficult to express out loud can be readily given voice through writing.

No matter what boat we’ve oared on this uneven sea, to avoid processing what we’ve been through is to minimize the impact of one of the most profound global crises of our lives. Healing is essential to our collective wellness, and expressive writing has already proven to be a tool for enhancing well-being in teachers and other full-time workers. According to a July 2020 preprint of a study by researchers Emily Round, Mark Wetherell, Vicki Elsey, and Michael A. Smith, a course of “positive expressive writing,” meaning writing specifically about intensely positive experiences over three consecutive days, not only reduced “state anxiety” immediately post-writing but improved work-related well-being and job satisfaction four weeks later. Researchers call for further work on the effects of expressive writing on organizational outcomes, suggesting that writing might even enhance work quality and creativity in the workplace.

“Creativity is a basic human response to trauma and a natural emergency defense system,” writes Louise DeSalvo in Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives, a book that famously draws on the myriad scientific studies about the efficacy of using writing as a restorative tool. The science is grounded. So, what does this look like in practice, and how can you put this powerful tool into effect?

Writing That Heals

Expressive writing is expansively defined as writing that helps us make sense of our thoughts and emotions. Established writers know this intuitively. “I don’t know what I think until I write it down,” wrote Joan Didion. Expressive writing can take myriad forms, including journaling, memoir, poetry, even opinion or thought pieces. But what you write matters less than how.

The most healing writing, according to researchers, must follow a set of creative parameters. And most importantly, it can be just for you. It must contain concrete, authentic, explicit detail. The writer must link feelings to events — on the page. Such writing allows a person to tell a complete, complex, coherent story, with a beginning, middle, and end. In the telling, such writing transforms the writer from a victim into something more powerful: a narrator with the power to observe. In short, when we write to express and make sense, we reclaim some measure of agency.

“The difference between a victim and a survivor is the meaning made of the trauma,” DeSalvo says. Following the Holocaust, for instance, many survivors wrote accounts of their experiences. Victor Frankl, whose 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning was written over a period of nine days, was originally published under the title A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp. This type of immersive, reflective writing process can help us piece ourselves back together after even the most unimaginable times.

In writing our stories, we retain authorship over our lives.

Practice It on the Page

If you’re interested in trying out writing as a tool for healing, here are three practices, with prompts, to get you started, along with illustrative examples:

1. Don’t hold back.

This writing is for you first and foremost. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling. Don’t worry about what anyone else might think or whether it is well written or kind or fair. Set a timer for ten minutes, keep your hand moving, and “freewrite” in response to a specific prompt. For example, this prompt: Without overthinking it, write down words, notes, phrases, sentences — whatever bubbles up when you think about dramatic moments from your pandemic experience, moments that have stayed with you, pleasant or unpleasant. If you run out of things to say, write that (“running out of things to say”) until a new thought comes to mind.

Here’s a sample from a notebook I kept during the first weeks of the lockdown, unedited:

The last gathering I attended with a large group of people before lockdown was a writing workshop on revision on March 12, 2020. The room was woozy (can a room be woozy?) with anticipation. We wriggled in chairs spaced a foot (as if we knew anything) apart and munched on single-pack snacks. Nature Valley granola bars. Wrapped Hostess donuts. We knew enough to modify practices. We didn’t know enough to protect ourselves from the virus tsunami heading our way. And what I remember, in addition to those single-pack snacks: The instructor quoted some other writer who said no one work of art has to contain the universe. It just has to be a house. Stay inside the den. Build just one room, until you can walk around in it. Ironic how days later my literal house would contain my family’s universe for days upon days without end….

2. No detail too small; no feeling too large.

Gina DiPonio, formerly program manager of UChicago Writer’s Studio, advises us to delve into the details. “To get to the feelings and truth of your experience, let your mind go to the detailed, specific moments. Power is in the details because they make it real for us. Access what really happened by returning to even the small moments, the minutiae, that ground you in the experience. You might find that the smallest detail brings out the largest truth or feeling. Make room for all of that, and capture your experience in its vastness and depth.” Prompt: Think of one object in your home that signifies a moment in this pandemic for you. See it in full color. Feel the weight of it. Use all your senses. Now, write about that object and see how large its meaning can become.

Here’s a sample of this technique, drawn from an essay by DiPonio herself:

I am at the sink. Again. Near always. Washing vegetables. Washing dishes. Filling pots. Washing hands. Washing hands. Washing hands…. All these meals, every day. All these dishes. It comes to the point that seeing the full sink is like a jolt to my amygdala. I feel the mental equivalent of hives. And there is no end of this pandemic in sight. I wash some more….

3. Reach for revelation.

As the world has altered around us, we’ve been altered, too. We may have learned about what matters, what doesn’t, or what gets us through. We may have learned about ourselves. Reach for those lessons as you write. Humans are meaning-making machines, and writing is a natural way to get there. Prompt: What is one thing you know now that you didn’t know before the pandemic? How did you learn it? When did your knowing change?

Here’s an example from Lisa Ventura, a student who came through my Voice the Pandemic nonfiction workshop, drawn from a piece eventually published in Slate:

As the pandemic continues, seemingly indefinitely, I have trained myself each day to be more empathetic. As much as I want to hold on to my grudge for my father’s shortcomings, I also know that Covid-19 could take him or anyone at any time, and in the meanwhile I need to give him the grace or forgiveness he deserves….

The Only Way Out Is Through

The 13th-century Sufi mystic and poet Rumi wrote, “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” Thinkers from Freud to Brené Brown have since popularized the idea that there is strength in embracing our vulnerability. When we use writing to lay bare our truths, we remain protagonists in our lives, rather than victims of circumstances beyond our control.

I first experienced the recuperative effects of intentional expressive writing during the 2008 recession, living in 650 square feet with a spouse who had been laid off just as I became pregnant with twins. I penned a column (“Love in the Time of Layoff,” Recession Wire) that brought relief and release by helping me own what I was living through. Years later, when healing from cancer treatments, writing in spurts about the gruesome experience allowed me to remain emotionally intact through a powerless time.

Of course, expressive writing is hardly a panacea. Many right now sorely need external supports like therapy, amped up employee wellness initiatives, and government assistance. Still, expressive writing remains an accessible tool that can help us process this many-tiered loss. Some pandemic traumas, the most obvious being the loss of colleagues, loved ones, and friends, we will never “recover” from. Nor is recovery always the goal. As many well-known memoir writers attest, we write about painful experiences not to move past but to move through them without being destroyed.

Writing expressively can also lead us toward hope. “The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is — it’s to imagine what is possible,” writes bell hooks. We can write our pandemic stories to remember, to honor, to render visible, to witness, and to envision ourselves whole again. We can write to sit with and determine the meaning of our own profound human experience and existence.

Ever a writing evangelist, I believe we can even write our way to the other side. We can use techniques born of expressive writing to author our post-pandemic futures. Future-oriented prompts for freewriting might include, for instance, these:

As we become less powerless in our lives, post-pandemic, where specifically will we assert our power to make positive change as individuals? How about as a team, company, or industry? 

What small (or large) corner in your personal or professional arena will you transform to match your post-pandemic vision?

How will your pandemic revelations reshape the rest of your life (or, more simply, the next year)?

Let’s not merely write our way out; let’s write our way into the new.

After all, we are all changed. And after we write for ourselves, perhaps we might share our writing selectively to reconnect in a deeper authentic way with colleagues, family, friends, as well as with ourselves. Here’s the good news: We don’t have to be professional writers to use writing to help us comprehend the contours of our experience, heal, and ultimately flourish, restore, repair, renew. We merely have to pick up our pen and begin.

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