Expressive Writing: It Just Works (at least it did for me)
Amy Joy November 26, 2018
“Even when the costs are high, the confession of painful secrets can reduce anxiety and physiological stress.” (Pennebaker)
The impact of trauma, adverse experiences, and everyday stress can take a toll on the body. Having no avenue for releasing all the emotion and feelings associated with previous trauma, horrible events, and stress can have a devastating impact on the physical body. Psychosomatic Syndrome is more commonplace than most would like to admit. The connection between experiencing a parent’s divorce and having asthma attacks can be hard to detect if that reaction has always been present. It is easy to blame our physical issues on things that make sense to us in the moment. It must be arthritis, getting older is the reason for the persistent pain in back and neck, not the consistent stress of an abusive marriage. We often do not see the mess we are in, while we are in it. Providing a pathway to examine the body, mind, and spirit can give us insight and wisdom. When we begin to realize why we think and feel the way we do, only then can we change how we think and feel.
Expressive writing is the process of writing about distressing events or thoughts, for 15 – 20 minutes, 3-4 times a week. Research shows that those who practice expressive writing have better physical and mental health; it promotes healthy solutions to difficult situations or thoughts, building resilience to help face day to day challenges and difficult situations. (Pennebaker)
After experiencing on-going trauma, I can say with all certainty that finding something to ease the constant running of flashbacks, the daily anxiety attacks, and hyper-vigilance is a Godsend. I can also say that I have managed to accomplish quite a bit, even with the daily upheaval, I cannot imagine what would be possible if these challenges (light word for it) were no longer in the front seat, often driving this brain and body. Life is short and precious, and I have spent far too much of it given over to a monster.
Expressive writing not only helps to get things out of the conscience and sub-conscience but it helps considerably when getting those thoughts and feelings out verbally. The written word is the first step in conveying emotion, for so many survivors of childhood trauma.
When I first started seeing my therapist, it was nearly impossible to say anything of actual substance. In fact, I spent the better part of a year shooting the breeze, so-to-speak, and never talked about why I was there. Being the gracious and extremely patient person, she is, she never threw up a judgmental glance or sarcastic tone; she waited. She waited until we, all the parts of who we are, were safe enough to talk. That time came but then, still no words came out of my mouth. I found myself almost catatonic, without words and completely blank inside. I was shut down. After a few sessions like this, we decided that perhaps journaling would be beneficial and
then I could share that journal every week and we could process through all the crazy thoughts. This worked! It still works and was a complete lifesaver.
Journaling through therapy sessions has been a wonderful way to communicate but I would be lying if I said we still had no issues saying what we needed to, at least in the present moment. We would read through the journal and begin to process, but then there we were again, no words. That’s when we came up with tiny little flash cards with emotions, feelings, body sensations, and other relevant words on them to describe what was happening in the moment. These too, are a lifesaver. They help us get through most sessions.
Essentially, journaling for me has gotten me through some very tough difficult stuff, repeatedly. It provides me with a way to communicate, not just day to day, but in the moments where I am rendered mute and helpless. Journaling has helped me put actual words to my feelings and emotions, something I found many people cannot do. It has helped to communicate my deepest fears, greatest joys, and process through the mundane. Journaling has given me a voice, a way to tell my story, and get through it without deep distress. Without it, I would still be muddling my way through therapy sessions, talking only about the kids, the bills, and the cats; never really getting to the heart of issues.
My own personal experience with beginning this process, of guided journaling has been very difficult, insightful, and productive, so far. I have written things I never imagined I would or could.
The first day I was to write about some sort of trauma or emotional upheaval and boy did I start with a doozy. I won’t go into it but, it took me through a range of emotions, from fear to terror to anger and rage. I sent that first writing to my amazing therapist, not knowing if she would even want to read it, it was pretty long and I was not appropriate to send it over a holiday weekend, but she did read it and encouraged and edified us all. That meant so much to me. To know I am cared for, it overwhelms me. I constantly feel this draw to lean in and then pull away. Trying to find that perfect balance between letting myself be loved and comforted, and wanting to find the furthest, most empty place on earth to hide and wallow. Does everyone feel this way? I wonder.
Needless to say, this journaling thing is absolutely bringing out things that have been long buried, whether that will lead to greater stability after standing in quicksand for so long, I don’t know, but right now, I am willing to go on this journey and find out.
What is guided journaling? How is different from day to day journaling?
Day to day journaling is great but often misses the real heart of why and how we function, why we make the decisions we do, and how our lives are impacted by the past. It is great for keeping track of emotions, eating and sleeping habits, how irritated the kids made you that day, but to dig deeper you need a better tool.
Guided journaling comes with tools and a set of guidelines to help dig into those really hard parts of your past, process them, create your narrative, and set the past aside, where it should be. It is very important to note here, having a therapist, minister, or someone who can process all this with you is so vital. Please find someone who do not judge you but will help you process, put into perspective, and let go.
I really hope you give guided journaling a try. The book “Opening Up By Writing It Down” by James Pennebaker, can help guide you through this process. Take it “low and slow” as my therapist would say, and know that whether you have deep wounds from childhood or just need some help processing your emotions, journaling can be a wonderful therapeutic tool, provide an outlet for built-up anxiety and over time, develop a healthier mind and body.