Writing about trauma isn’t easy for anyone, and writing about your own trauma—what we call writing through your trauma—is downright difficult. You may worry that you’re sharing something that’s too graphic for readers or that your story doesn’t really matter after all. You may be triggered by revisiting traumatic events from your past and have a worsening of anxiety or PTSD. Or perhaps you’re worried about what people you know might think when they read your truth or if there will be an adverse impact to your family.
Whatever the impact, it’s imperative when undertaking an endeavor such as writing a memoir or essays about your trauma that you listen to what your body and mind are trying to tell you and take care of yourself in order to preserve your mental wellbeing.
We’ve pooled some tips and resources that have helped our authors (and editors!) during that painful process below.
Self-care. Make sure you have a self-care routine before you begin the writing process, and, arguably more importantly, ensure you do not leave that routine by the wayside as you progress. It can be easy to do when your thoughts are consumed by a trauma from your past, but that’s when it’s most critical that you continue so you aren’t trapped in a cycle of self re-traumatization.
What’s retraumatization? According to samhsa.gov, retraumatization is “reliving stress reactions experienced as a result of a traumatic event when faced with a new, similar event.” This includes wading through memories and can be as intense as when the original event occurred.
Write for you. This should, first and foremost, be about you. Writing through trauma doesn’t need to have an end-goal of being published. The act of writing activates unique neural pathways in our brains that facilitate healing (especially when this is done by hand), which is why most people who have been to therapy have at one time or another been told to journal. The purpose isn’t what matters; the act of writing is. Start by journaling if that’s easier for you, then later you can figure out if you want to publish any of it or not. And remember, just because you write it, doesn’t mean it has to stay. Get it all out first and worry about what to keep afterwards.
Connect with others. This may not work for everyone, but most trauma survivors we’ve met have benefited from connecting with other survivors, whether that’s in a one-on-one or group dynamic, in person, or via social media. One of the biggest hurdles to healing and writing about your trauma is that determination that you’re alone. Finding a community of other survivors will help you to see and understand that you aren’t alone and can help you find the support you need as you write through your trauma.
Lose the timeline. This is mostly relevant for those writing through trauma with the purpose of publishing in the form a memoir or something similar. Expectations rarely match up with reality when it comes to writing about our past traumas. It’s easy to think something has already been processed only to find yourself re-experiencing the trauma all over again when you start to write about it. That’s normal and to be expected because in order to write with clarity about those experiences, you will need to relive them, and that’s tougher than any of us expect (you can read about Katherine Turner’s experience with this here). There’s no reason to add more pressure by having a tight deadline looming. Lose the timeline, and instead move at whatever pace your healing asks of you.
Get outside. It’s easy when we’re writing—especially sensitive material—to completely lose track of time. We feel like we just sat down and now it’s time for bed. And while that happening every now and then isn’t anything to worry about, it can easily turn into stretches of multiples days or even weeks at a time. This is not only bad for your body (which needs movement!), but also for your mental health. You brain needs to be able to disconnect for a period of time in order assimilate what you’ve been thinking and writing as well as simply to allow you to reset. One of the best ways to combat this is to get outside! There’s natural light, fresh air, and new stimuli for your attention (cars and people, or animals and insects and plants, depending on where you live). It’ll also allow you to distance yourself from the trauma you’ve been writing about, which is important because your body can feel like you’re experiencing the event anew (this is the retraumatization we talked about earlier).
Most of all, when writing through trauma, remember that you are writing your story. And as the author of your life, you get to choose how this chapter is written.
Below are some of the resources our team at Josha has found the most helpful. If you have any suggestions you think we should add to our list, feel free to contact us—we’d love to hear from you!
- The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity by Nadine Burke Harris
- Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Recover and Heal from Sexual Trauma by Jen Cross
- Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving by Pete Walker
- The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk
- moments of extraordinary courage by Katherine Turner
- The Places That Scare You by Pema Chödrön
- Living Beautifully With Uncertainty And Change by Pema Chödrön
- Untamed by Glennon Doyle
- I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t) by Brené Brown
- Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown
- Know My Name by Chanel Miller
- Me, Too: Voicing My Story by Olivia Castetter
- resilient by Katherine Turner
- Adult Children of Alcoholics and & Dysfunctional Families
- Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute
- The National Child Traumatic Stress Network
- Bridges to Recovery
- National Institute of Mental Health – Anxiety Disorders
- National Institute of Mental Health – PTSD
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America
- American Psychiatry Association
- Psychology Today
- National Sexual Violence Resource Center
- Office on Women’s Health
- Writing Ourselves Whole
- Pete Walker
- This Girl Unravelled
- Rachael Brooks
- Katherine Turner
- Don’t Ask Liv
- 4 Ways That Childhood Trauma Impacts Adults
- My Best Friends Didn’t Believe I Was Raped. Here’s How That Affected My Trauma.
- Child Sexual Abuse
- Trauma: Childhood Sexual Abuse
- How Family and Close Friends Can Help Trauma Survivors
- Facts About Women and Trauma
- Trauma – helping family or friends
- Understanding the Impact of Trauma
- Helping Patients Cope with a Traumatic Event
- How to Help Trauma Survivors
- Anxiety Makes Me Want to Apologize for Absolutely Everything
- Why Trauma Survivors Can’t Just ‘Let It Go’
- 13 Benefits of Yoga That Are Supported by Science
- Stephen Porges: ‘Survivors are blamed because they don’t fight’
- What You Know About Your Body’s Response to Danger is Probably Wrong
Josha Publishing, LLC is a woman-founded, woman-owned, and woman-run company that is passionate about books, stories, and the power of words to change lives. Learn more about us here and remember to sign up for our newsletter to find out about new content, new books, and submissions update.
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