by LINDA JOY MYERS on JANUARY 10, 2009
During the last decade, Dr. James Pennebaker of the University of Texasconducted research to examining the role of story writing to help heal trauma. In these studies, he asked people to write about painful experiences, inviting them to go into detail about the most difficult, painful and traumatic experiences of their lives. Some of their stories were related to traumas resulting from events in the outside world—natural disasters, car accidents, rape, or war, but others had to do with trauma or abuse at home—physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, alcoholism, and mental illness. These kinds of traumas were inflicted within a safe place and within the fabric of family and friends. That kind of injury is all the more insidious because the victims, particularly when they are children, don’t realize that what is happening is wrong. It is simply the way the family acts. It’s the way things are.
Whether a trauma occurs at home or out in the world, it has a lasting effect on the body and psyche—the body stores these memories as well as the mind. Various therapies help to heal the body/mind wounds. Sometimes hidden wounds lead to a destructive repeating of the trauma, called “repetition compulsion.”
According to Judith Herman, author of Trauma and Recovery, “Traumatized people feel and act as though their nervous systems have been disconnected from the present.” The effects of trauma follow a person throughout life, causing problems such as a strong startle reaction, sensitivity to loud noises, fears, phobias, nightmares, and depression.
Research has been done on the physiology and chemistry of the brain in relation to trauma and emotion. Traumatic memories are stored differently from regular memories. People who have been traumatized may have recurring dreams or tell or write a story repetitively, as if a phonograph needle is stuck in the groove of the trauma.
The path of emotional healing is like cleaning out an old wound: it hurts while we do it out but we feel much better afterward.
- Make a list of the darker memories that trouble you from time to time.
- Write down the age you were when these difficult times happened.
- Write down what you did to cope with the event at the time.
- How do you feel now about the incident? What would you have liked to happen differently?
- Write about yourself in the situation in third person or fictionalize the story.
- Write about the best possible future you can imagine. Write in the present tense.
You can heal trauma and live a fuller and freer life. Writing your stories is an opportunity to put the old ghosts to rest. Approach certain memories indirectly rather than confront them head on. It is important to write about happiness and a positive future self. The brain is healed by positive images. In order to feel better, you may not have to write the dark stories at all.
A story has a focus and takes place at a particular place and time. A story offers you structure, which you helps protect you from being overwhelmed by pages and pages of unstructured writing. Take good care of yourself. Protect yourself from feeling overwhelmed. After writing, reward yourself by doing something nice. Pat yourself on the back for your courage.
A trauma is resolved if you are no longer troubled by it and your life is relatively free of a negative reaction to the event. Resolution means your life isn’t circumscribed by your fears and you’re not as disturbed when you remember the traumatic event. The traumatic event is remembered but without a hot emotional reaction. It becomes an event, only one part of the ongoing, growing story of your life.