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Therapeutic Writing and the Healing of Trauma

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Headshot of Carolyn Cruse

Carolyn Cruse, MSW, LCSW

Trauma Therapist

“A word after a word after a word is power.” –Margaret Atwood

For survivors of trauma, language can play a complicated role in healing. On the one hand, words are often insufficient to capture the scope and magnitude of traumatic experiences and the feelings and responses that happen afterward. Words are also not always accessible to people as they think or talk about their trauma, especially when that trauma took place early on in a person’s life before their language skills were fully developed. On the other hand, language also provides a voice for trauma survivors in a world that so often attempts to silence them. Much interpersonal trauma, such as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, physical or emotional neglect, and sexual violence, involves (and often relies on) silencing the survivor. This can happen via threats, gaslighting, censorship, or denial, and can cause trauma survivors to doubt the validity of their experiences. (For more on trauma and doubt, please see Cynthia Degnan’s post in last month’s Voices blog).

Free writing is a type of writing that removes the emphasis on composition, spelling, grammar, and audience. It’s similar to a stream-of-consciousness in which someone writes about whatever pops into their mind about a topic with more flow and less censorship than we might use when engaged in other types of writing. It allows individuals unlimited space to put language to any topic that they choose, especially those that might not have been given much room beyond the page. The focus in free writing is less on the way that things are written and more on what the experience of writing is like and what the writer notices about the themes that they explore through their writing.

Additionally, free writing about one’s experiences or about themes and topics that relate to their passions, emotions, and ideas creates a unique interaction between being a participant and being an observer. As a participant, we live our lives and cope with our experiences in the moment and “on the ground level.” As an observer, we are able to see patterns, themes, and dynamics as we reflect back on those experiences. Free writing allows for more observation while still being a participant in a way that brings things to light that might not have been noticeable without this distinction.

Free writing can also bridge gaps in verbal processing. Sometimes, using our verbal and language skills to describe and analyze things can detach us from our ability to experience the associated emotions (often called intellectualizing). Writing freely can loosen the importance of verbal rules and structure and put more emphasis on expression and creativity. It’s useful to note that free writing is not necessarily limited to written words–writers might include drawings, images, or scribbles as they go along.

So where to start?

When writing as a part of healing from trauma, it is important to consider self-care before, during, and after the process. Before getting started, writers might look for a quiet, safe, and comfortable location–maybe a private room or a favorite outdoor space. It can be useful to set a time limit on the writing as well. 10-20 minutes is a good place to start (but so is 5 minutes, or even one minute). Writing as a part of healing can be physically and emotionally taxing so having a basic idea of how long it will last can help the writer build in a time to pause and check in with how they are feeling.

For some, free writing might follow that stream of consciousness without any planned focus. For those who prefer to write about a certain topic, theme, or experience, it can be helpful to check in with oneself and assess how much emotional space they have that day or how safe they feel spending some focused time with those particular prompts. These prompts also do not have to be dedicated to describing any specific event in detail. While this might be helpful for some, it is not a requirement for the healing benefits of free writing. Writers might also find inspiration from quotes, songs, or specific emotions.

While writing, it can be tempting to shape the writing to fit external expectations (including those grammar and spelling rules and thoughts about how someone should or shouldn’t write/speak/think about the topic at hand). Noticing this if it happens and trying to detach from such external expectations can help writers to recenter their practice on themselves–the writing is for them, after all, not for anyone else. For many, the practice of doing something without regard for how others will perceive and respond to it can be very foreign. We are socialized to perform different and specific roles based on gender, race, sexuality, disability/ability, socioeconomic status, etc., and trauma survivors may feel these expectations especially keenly.

Writing about emotions also involves looking inward to notice and express how one feels while doing that writing. Some emotions may be more challenging than others to experience and write about, and it may be helpful to pause the writing and stretch or take a few deep breaths if the writer is noticing a strong physical reaction.

After writing, it can be helpful to take a break between that and whatever the next activity is. This time might be spent doing some deep breathing, meditating, walking, eating, or any other activity that helps the writer to transition into the rest of their day. Writers might also benefit from doing a body scan or emotional check-in to see if they notice any physical or emotional sensations that might need a little extra attention. Importantly, this is also a good time to check in and see if the writer would benefit from some additional emotional support from a friend or family member.

Once finished, some writers like to read back over what they’ve written after taking a short break. Others may never look at it again. Either is fine, so long as writers are checking in with themselves about what would feel best. It can also be useful to check in about what the writing experience was like. What did the writer notice about the way they were feeling (emotionally or physically) while writing? Were there any barriers that popped up along the way?

Writing can be a powerful means of processing challenging emotions, experiences, and thoughts. And, like any therapeutic tool, survivors can take whatever suits them and leave the rest.

If you’re interested in trying out some free writing in the context of a group, Steadfast Center will be hosting a 6-week therapeutic writing group starting in September. Information is available under the Groups and Programs heading above.

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