PTSD and Writing

In a previous post, Thresholds: Illness and Growth, I mentioned the written word as an important tool in healing:

  • I used it to help heal from physical illness.
  • Neuropsychologist Dr. Diane Engelman has used therapeutic writing in her practice.
  • Together, we write therapeutic stories for some of her clients.

But how do we know that writing about trauma or other emotional upheaval can help a person? We have both fact and anecdote to back up the approach.

Fact initially came from the research of social psychologist James Pennebaker and his colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin. His 2004 book Writing to Heal describes how a short routine of writing about a difficult topic yields powerful, positive results. Facing painful experiences is never easy. But over time, people who take this route show improved life and health. One key seems to be writing at a later time than the occurrence of the traumatic event.

Anecdote may be seen as less reliable, grounded as it is in personal narrative. But anecdotes can also be compelling, since they are crafted from the raw material of a person’s life story:

PTSD, trauma , personal narrative, writing to heal

Growing Stories

“John” was among many sent to fight in Vietnam. Like others, he carried trauma home in his mind and body. It went dormant for a while, never examined by those who provided his health care, until it roared out of hiding years later. It was labeled PTSD. He went in and out of counseling, gathering “tools for his toolbox,” as he put it. But the trauma always returned, little diminished by time or effort or those tools he had gathered.

Finally, John had a series of flashback experiences that shook him deeply. He was out of town, and his therapist suggested writing about his thoughts and feelings of the remembered trauma, until he could get home. With that general framework, John began to write, for 20-30 minutes a day, for four days. He knew nothing about the Pennebaker work or that he was unknowingly replicating the steps used in the research. He simply wrote in a way that fit for him.

When asked a few years later if the writing had had any impact on him – either short or long term – John was very articulate:

  • Short-term, it resolved the immediate crisis. Putting it into words made the fear and panic tangible by tying present feelings back to the earlier experience. He said that it “gave framework to the fog of war” by showing him how certain trigger events in the present could bring up those feelings.
  • Longer-term, the frequency of episodes has not decreased, but the intensity of them is much lower. The writing helped him to form what he calls “an index for feelings” and to create mental “filing cabinets” of actions and thoughts. He better understands his triggers and also knows where to look for the escape path.

Writing is not a magic potion. But as John’s story shows, it can be a valuable addition to the therapeutic process. John continues to work with a therapist and in a group. He makes all the efforts of self-discovery that enable us to continue growing our stories. He says writing is one tool in his toolbox for coping with PTSD. Most important, he says that writing empowered him “to no longer feel helpless.” And he has this advice for anyone who tries the writing approach: If on a computer, save your work. He didn’t, and the product of those days of writing has vanished.

But maybe that’s just as well – he’s no longer in the same psychological place today as he was then, and if he were to write again, the result might be very different.

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