How writing can help people with PTSD
An empty notebook can suggest limitless possibilities. It’s also one of the simplest and best tools to improve your mental health, including when you have a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Many people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder find that writing can help them to understand their PTSD and the symptoms they are experiencing – whether that be a diary of thoughts, notes on a scrap of paper, or by writing a novel.
Sometimes it’s referred to as ‘journaling’ and there are all sorts of online resources, workshops and even specialist materials to use. However, this article will explain how anyone can benefit from the simple act of writing things down.
A private place to store your thoughts
Let’s start by being clear. This is not about the discipline of writing every day and feeling like it’s a chore. Journaling is your own free therapy, to use as you wish in support of improved mental health.
Did you keep a diary as a child? Chances are it was filled with a random assortment. Such as what you ate for tea, who sat next to you on the school trip, and secrets like who you ‘fancied’ or hated. Alternatively, this was the sort of out-pouring and off-loading you did verbally, with your mates.
Journaling for therapy purposes is similar. It provides a safe place for random thoughts, feelings and experiences that would otherwise clutter your mind. Putting words down on paper becomes cathartic and your mind becomes calmer and clearer.
Often, people who write things down also find it deescalates emotional reactions. Something that felt overwhelming and terrible is clarified and put into context when put into words.
Matt Johnson, a retired soldier and Police Inspector, only started writing to help with treatment for his PTSD.
As part of his counselling program, Matt was asked to write notes about memories, dreams and incidents he had been involved in – ultimately, the counsellor commented that they were the basis of a good book. One evening, Matt sat at his computer and started to weave his experiences into a novel. ‘Wicked Game‘ was the result.
Matt noted, ‘For me, writing started as a way of helping the counselling. Like many victims, I became emotional when prompted to talk about experiences and describe what had caused the PTSD in the first place. Like many, I was advised not to worry and to try and make notes to bring back to counselling session that I could use to refer to and which might help the counsellor to help me. I made the notes at times when I felt up to it, writing down what had happened, how I had felt, how it had affected me. I recorded dreams that I had, flashbacks and imaginary. Over the weeks and months I found that writing things down helped my brain to get things focussed, to get my thoughts back in order and to regain structure and control.
When asked how it helped, I describe it like this. Before the writing, my brain felt a bit like a fragmented hard disk. Lots of data, confused, hard to join up and recall. Thought processes were slow, decision making was poor. After writing, it was like a PC de-fragment, where the information/memory is more organised and easier to use. It works more quickly and efficiently, thereby reducing frustration and making life easier.
It helped immensely. The more I wrote the better I felt. There were several dips, several times when I found myself reliving things in a way that I preferred to avoid, but, despite the low points, the overall direction was onwards and upwards.’
Similarly, Amy Jo Spragues’ blog, Writing Through PTSD, ‘began as a sort of “trauma-write” so I could figure things out that didn’t make sense in my head. I spent a lot of time on definitions and diagnoses and cathartic writing (of course I still do that from time to time, don’t be silly). Now I’m getting somewhere else. And my focus is my story… I have found that writing is a big part of getting out a narrative when you have lost your own story, or you are looking to start a new one.’
What should you write down?
It really is up to you. Journaling is private unless you choose to share your writing with a therapist or loved one. You can be totally yourself, free of all judgement and with no limit to what you can say.
Much of the value of writing therapy comes from reading it back. For instance, you can start to see patterns in your thoughts and emotions and understand your own triggers better. All of which can help you to manage the symptoms of PTSD with more confidence.
Though this can be an independent project, a PTSD trained therapist may ask you to do written tasks. Especially if you have complex PTSD and you are benefiting from Narrative Exposure Therapy.
Plus, writing things down can be important between therapy sessions, to capture things you want to discuss during counselling.
The science behind writing therapy
The power that writing has to heal the mind (and relieve emotional stress) has been appreciated for centuries. There is even scientific evidence that writing brings physical benefits! Studies have concluded that your immune system and physical healing improves when you release negative emotions into a journal, that writing memories down can be as valuable as discussing them in cognitive processing sessions for PTSD and that expressive writing is a valuable way to manage stress and fear of failure.
Successful trials of Expressive Writing therapies (a type of therapy that asks sufferers to ‘write about their deepest thoughts and feelings about a stressful event without regard to the structure of the writing) demonstrates that it can reduce the distress that accompanies one’s thoughts and feelings over time. These trials suggest also suggest that Expressive Writing is most effective for individuals currently experiencing strong negative emotions related to the trauma.
Ideas for writing therapy
- The best way to start journaling for PTSD is to get a notebook and pen and keep them handy at all times. Remember, you don’t have to use them unless you want to! Though some people get into a routine and write at the same time every day.
- It doesn’t have to be all written content. If you want to doodle, draw or stick items in your journal as part of the process, go for it!
- To maximise your PTSD writing therapy, find a quiet place, so you can get everything down without distraction.
- It’s recommended you use your journal to record achievements and positive moments too. These can be invaluable anchors when you’re struggling. The same applies to adding hopes, and long-term goals, or things you enjoy
- Your journal can be the place to explore your whole identity and personality; rather than letting PTSD define you.
- Some people prefer freestyle journaling, while others create sections in their notebook to organise their thoughts and experiences.
- Journaling does not have to be factual or accurate. Your musings could include telling third-person stories if that helps. “The man found that he…….”
- Some people keep a notebook by their bed and add details of nightmares and dreams, to help clear their minds.
- Also, writing therapy can be letters (that you do or don’t send) to significant people. You can put down what you would like to say, honestly and without any judgement. Some people then burn the letters that they can’t or don’t want to send, to try to end a cycle of negative reactions or say goodbye to someone.
If you don’t fancy physically writing, you can use a keyboard or even a voice recorder. However, try to print off and keep all your jottings in one place.
Therapy for PTSD family members
Lastly, writing therapy is not just of value to people with PTSD, but also their partners and other friends and family. It can be a source of relief, clarity and planning if you put down your thoughts on your experience of living with someone with PTSD.
Matt Johnson has gone on to write a further successful book ‘Deadly Game’ and noted that ‘PTSD affects people in many ways, so what works for one will not necessarily work for another, but the fact that so many people have had such enjoyment out of reading a book that came about in such an unexpected way has given me immense reward. People have contacted me, some have described me as inspiring. That may be. What I can say is that the feedback has inspired me to carry on writing and we’ll just see if it continues to help keep the demons at bay. Not just for me, but also for the many others that have and will experience the nightmare as well.’
It’s important to note, that while choosing your PTSD recovery path you need to address both the symptoms and the underlying condition. NICE guidance updated in 2018 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Please remember, these aren’t meant to be medical recommendations, but they’re tactics that have worked for others and might work for you, too. Be sure to work with a professional to find the best methods for you.
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