Writing as a Way of Healing

I can’t count the number of times I’ve told someone that writing is my sanity. It’s been that way for as long as I can remember. I have memories of myself as a little girl scribbling ferociously in a diary at my desk pounding out all of the emotions I wasn’t allowed to express in my house. I have pages from a notebook that I kept in my car during the months I spent living in my car as a teenager. I mean it when I say writing has saved my life on more than one occasion because it has given me the outlet to let out my true voice and stopped me from losing my mind. I can take risks on paper that are too scary to say out loud.

One of the first things they ask you to do when you begin graduate school is to pick a focus of research. I didn’t have to think twice about it. I wanted to examine from a scientific standpoint if writing about trauma had positive effects on psychological health and wellbeing. I thought I had come up with a groundbreaking idea.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that there was a wealth of scientific evidence demonstrating that writing about traumatic events has all kinds of healing benefits. My ideas weren’t new––there was an entire group of scientists who’d been studying using writing as a way of healing since the 80s.

Time and time again, the research shows that when people write about traumatic events, they experience a significant decrease in all kinds of stress. Pretty cool, huh? It gets even better.

Science has to look at all angles so of course they wanted to find out if perhaps the positive results were related to the actual writing in and of itself rather than writing about trauma. So, they created a series of studies where people were split into two groups. One group wrote about trivial events like what they ate for dinner the night before or the latest movie they’d seen. Another group wrote about a traumatic event they had experienced. The results showed that the people who wrote about traumatic events got so much more out of their writing than the people who’d written about trivial events. They experienced drops in depression scores, decreases in their anxiety levels, less stress, and more happiness.

In my professional career as a psychologist, I’ve gone on to build on this body of research. It’s been utterly fascinating. In my clinical work with kids, I’ve specialized in treating kids who’ve experienced traumatic events and gotten certified in the leading form of therapy for these types of situations. The most successful treatment for kids who’ve been exposed to abuse, death, domestic violence, and natural disasters is called Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Guess what the major tool used in this treatment is––writing! The entire point of TFCBT is to have kids construct trauma narratives.

There are lots of reasons why writing about trauma works, but one of the main reasons is that trauma is stored in a particular part of the brain. We call it the reptilian brain. I’ll spare you the nerdy details, but trust me––the most primitive part of our brain is our reptilian brain and it doesn’t process emotions or thoughts very well. The magic happens in writing because the act of writing about a traumatic event moves the memory of the event from our reptilian brain into a part of our brain that can actually process thoughts and emotions. I love science!

And I love writing. Writing is my science of healing. Recently, I wrote my memoir which was basically my own trauma narrative. I can’t tell you how much my soul healed as a result of doing so. I added my own case to the body of evidence showing what a powerful tool writing is.

The next time you find yourself upset or troubled by something awful that happened in your past that you just can’t seem to let go of, grab your pen and paper and start writing. Write even if it doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t have to be a literary masterpiece. It only has to be the truth. Your truth. Once it’s out on paper, take a deep breath, and see how you feel. I’m willing to bet you’ll feel better.

–Elizabeth Garrison is a clinical psychologist specializing in traumatic stress in children and the author of the bestselling memoir, Wounds of the Father: A True Story of Child Abuse, Betrayal, and Redemption.

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