How to Heal Trauma by Journaling: Expressive Writing

black journal notebook and ink pen on top of bed.

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“People who do tend to have had major traumatic experiences early in their lives… tended to keep [it]  secret… What is it about a secret that’s so bad? [They] are holding it in, and they are not talking about it.” – James Pennebaker, PhD, Using Expressive Writing to Heal Trauma via YouTube

It can be hard to put into words the experiences that shook you to your core, especially when time has passed, but the memories continue to come flooding back. Naturally, you may not know where to begin when discussing your traumas or feel safe opening up about them. 

 

Let me share a secret: if you want to heal and understand yourself, you don’t have to begin with talking. Writing is an excellent alternative to help you put your thoughts and feelings into words, as well as process any psychological trauma that may be holding you back.

How to heal trauma by journaling text on pink background with picture of journal and ink pen on bed.

You’ve probably heard people recommend journaling as a way to heal from trauma, but they don’t explain exactly how to do it. They don’t tell you what to write, which writing style is best for processing traumas, and so on. This can make it hard to know where to start and leave you feeling overwhelmed and staring at a blank page.

 

Of course, different forms of therapy can assist in people processing their traumatic experiences. However, some don’t have the means to afford it, others have difficulties verbalizing how they feel, and many simply aren’t ready to take the plunge yet, and that’s OK.

Trust me, you are not alone.

 

There’s a certain guided writing technique scientifically proven to help trauma survivors heal, and it can assist you in processing upsetting events, traumas, and emotional upheavals.

This writing technique is called expressive writing.

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What is Expressive Writing?

Expressive writing is a kind of therapeutic writing where individuals can express their thoughts and emotions related to a difficult or traumatic life experience, allowing people to heal trauma by journaling. Put simply, it gives people the opportunity to pour out their hearts and find solace in the words they create. Through this process, they can discover clarity, a sense of safety, and even healing (Lepore and Kliewer, 2013).

In 1986, James Pennebaker, a social psychologist and researcher, pioneered this writing style through a study involving college students. Half of the participants were asked to write about the most traumatic experiences in their lives, while the other half wrote about superficial topics. The students were required to write for fifteen minutes a day for four days.

Pennebaker found that those who wrote about their traumas visited the student health center at about half the rate of those who didn’t.

Who is expressive writing good for?

According to James Pennebaker, expressive writing may benefit you:

  • If you suffer from PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) or have experienced trauma.
  • If you find yourself unable to have a conversation about a distressing event or don’t feel heard.
  • If you still feel the effects of trauma or an upsetting event long-term (months or years after it happened).

Benefits of Writing for people with childhood Trauma?

Research demonstrates that expressive writing can enhance immune functioning, reduce anxiety and depression, and lower blood pressure. Writing can also be a safe haven, where you don’t have to fear being judged, shamed, or ridiculed for expressing your thoughts and experiences.

Talking or writing about upsetting things can have a powerful impact on our core values, our daily thought processes, and our self-esteem. Not expressing our thoughts and emotions can be detrimental to our emotional and physical wellbeing, whereas sharing them can be beneficial. (Pennebaker & Smyth, 2016, p. 2).

Side note: As a survivor of childhood trauma, I know fear all too well. In the wake of my traumatic events, I was too afraid to speak of my experiences, for fear of being shamed or having my reality denied. I was often stuck in speech, unable to articulate what had happened to me. Writing, however, has been a saving grace. It has allowed me to process and heal trauma by journaling, without worrying about external pressure or judgment.

If you want to know more about the origins and healing benefits of Expressive Writing watch video below:

Writing about traumatic experiences helps us find meaning 

“If you have a major experience that you do not  understand or are avoiding—it keeps coming back and you cannot get away from it— [then] you are not processing or organizing the event.

However, when you write about it, you put structure to the event and you start to understand the situation better. You no longer obsess about it because you understand it. You can sleep better [and] you’re able to focus better because you don’t have to keep thinking about the traumatic situation.” – James Pennebaker, via YouTube

Pennebaker lets us know that when we put pen to paper and give our upsetting experiences form, a few things happen:

  1. We recognize that what happened was significant.
  2. We give our emotions a name and sort out the details of the event.
  3. We gain a better understanding of how this experience relates to other moments in our life.

Writing about a traumatic experience can help us put it behind us. By organizing our thoughts on paper, we can better comprehend how our traumas and emotional wounds shape our lives. 

 

As with any story, it has a beginning, middle, and end. Once we’ve processed the experience and translated it into language, we can find closure. As Pennebaker puts it, “we can better understand the experience and ultimately put it behind us.”

How To Do It 

In their book, Expressive Writing: Words that Heal, the authors, James Pennebaker, PhD and John Evans, EdD, provide guidelines to keep in mind when writing to work through emotional upheavals to heal trauma by journaling.

Topic: Recall a traumatic (or stressful) event that you want to process. For the next four days, write for 20 minutes a day about that experience. Reveal your thoughts completely. You may write about the same incident throughout the four days or a different one each day.

Write Continuously:  Once you begin writing, keep going for the entire 20 minutes. Don’t worry about errors, grammar, or spelling. Just go with the flow. (Note: You can write for longer, but do your best to at least hit the 20-minute mark)

Write Only for Yourself: There’s no audience for your writing, so Pennebaker suggests allowing yourself the highest level of writing freedom by writing only for yourself and not sharing it with others. Sharing your writing, or even thinking about sharing it, can lead to writing for others or holding back when writing. For added privacy, you can destroy or hide your journal after writing.

Considerations:

Flip out Rule: If at any moment you get too overwhelmed while writing, you can stop. If you start becoming distressed and overstimulated, switch topics and tackle the distressing one at a later time.

Writing Exercise:

Pennebaker walks you through each day of the four-day writing exercise where he provides guided instructions for writing each day. I have included a PDF file with those instructions. Click below to download.

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What to Expect After Writing

Feeling sad after writing about a traumatic experience is normal, and usually lasts up to a few hours, just like when you watch a sad movie and feel down but wiser. If you find yourself still feeling down after a week, it may help to reach out and talk to somebody you trust—like family members, friends, a mental health professional, or whomever you feel comfortable confiding in.

Have a Plan for Handling Emotional Distress

If you become triggered or overwhelmed with too many emotions during or after writing, have a plan in place for managing them. Going for a walk, deep breathing, allowing yourself to feel without judgment, somatic touch, and meditation are all great self-care tools that can help you cope.

How Often Should You Use Expressive Writing?

Pennebaker posits that self-reflection through writing should be viewed as a kind of course-correction mechanism (J Pennebaker, Using Expressive Writing to Heal Trauma, January 10, 2021).  When something troubling or traumatic is weighing on your mind and refuses to let go, that’s when expressive writing comes in handy to heal trauma by journaling. It’s the perfect way to get the jumbled thoughts out of your head and find some peace.

Expressive writing is a tool to use when needed. It’s not meant for regular journaling, but rather to process experiences that cause disruption in your life, even if they are from the past. This writing is purposeful; whenever you need to work through trauma, you should do the 4-day writing exercise.

The Bottom Line

Expressive writing is a guided writing technique employed to assist in working through emotional upheavals to heal trauma by journaling. Through writing about a traumatic or unpleasant experience for 20 minutes for four consecutive days, you give yourself the opportunity to express your thoughts and progress through the experience.

Expressive writing differs from journaling about your everyday tasks. It is a purposeful examination, interpretation, and making sense of your stressors and traumas. When you write, you should reflect, search for the meaning in the story, and recognize any thought patterns. All of these activities help you to understand yourself and the situation, which in time, helps you to move forward.

Disclaimer:

Expressive writing can be a helpful tool for processing traumas, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. Just like yoga, therapy, EMDR, and somatic touch, it’s one of many options available when it comes to healing. There’s no single right way to process trauma, and no universal approach to healing it.

You are the expert in your life. Trust your inner guide and choose healing tools that support your evolution. In the words of Pennebaker, “there is no absolute answer or correct way to write or to get past emotional upheavals. Stick with what works and drop what doesn’t. Above all, trust your own intuition to know if you’re going in the right direction.”

Be empowered.  

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2 Responses

  1. You’re very welcome! I’m glad to hear that you’re open to exploring various topics. If you have any specific questions or areas of interest you’d like to delve into, please feel free to share them. Whether it’s about the latest advancements in technology, recent scientific discoveries, thought-provoking literary works, or any other subject, I’m here to offer insights and assistance. Just let me know how I can help, and I’ll do my best to provide valuable information and engage in meaningful discussions!

  2. You’re welcome! I’m glad to hear that you’re open to exploring various topics. If you have any specific questions or areas of interest you’d like to delve into, please feel free to share them. Whether it’s about the latest advancements in technology, recent scientific discoveries, thought-provoking literary works, or any other subject, I’m here to offer insights and assistance. Just let me know how I can help, and I’ll do my best to provide valuable information and engage in meaningful discussions!

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About

Wellness speaker and writer with over ten years of personal experience in healing and researching childhood traumas.

Survivor | Riser | and Sis – are my titles. Helping resilient souls rise through past experiences – is my life’s mission.

It’s nice to e-meet you! 

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