How writing can help PTSD symptoms

How writing can help PTSD symptoms

Many Post Traumatic Stress Disorder sufferers find that talking therapies, such as counselling, can help them to understand their PTSD and the symptoms they are experiencing. It helps to appreciate how a changes in the brain have been triggered and how the physical and psychological effects that follow are a result of that imbalance. At times, this simple understanding of the condition can help immeasurably.

Several PTSD sufferers use writing as their own form of therapy – whether that be a diary of thoughts, notes on a scrap of paper, or by writing a novel.

Matt Johnson, a retired soldier and Police Inspector, only started writing to help with treatment for his Post Traumatic Stress problems.

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.’

Studies have been undertaken on the effects of writing and PTSD symptoms, and one such study by Gail Ironson, MD, PhD, from the University of Miami, showed a gender-biased difference in the effects of writing on symptoms.

The study showed that women who wrote specifically about their trauma had a greater reduction in the severity of PTSD symptoms in comparison to the women who simply wrote about their day, or plans for a future day.

Conversely, the PTSD symptoms of men who took part in the study decreased in both writing groups. In other words, the intervention did not have a unique effect on the men as it did for the women.

One theory from this study is that women may benefit more from emotional disclosure writing because in general, they are often better at accessing and expressing their emotions, while men are socialized to inhibit emotional expression.

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.

“I thought a lot about what I wrote in between the writing sessions, and each one was easier to get through than the last. Before the writing, I held back from telling others about (the trauma). I never told anyone about it. But afterward, I opened up to close friends about it, and I think that it made our relationships better.”

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 sides of your brain. Talk therapy, counselling and Expressive Writing can be a great base to allow you to find words to express what you’re thinking and feeling, but can’t treat PTSD alone. When you feel you’ve got a significant amount of talking done and are ready to look for additional support there are many processes to choose. NICE guidance from 2005 and 2011 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.

SOURCES: Matt Johnson, NICABM, Art and Healing,

QUOTE: Adapted from Sloan, D.M, & Marx, B.P. (2006). Exposure through written emotional disclosure: Two case examples. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 13, 227-234.

IMAGE: Writing? Yeah. by Caleb Roenigk

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