Time heals all wounds, they say. Except when it doesn’t. In my experience, time can dull pain, remove us from the immediacy of a traumatic event or loss, and make us feel as though we should get over our pain and grief. But time, by itself, doesn’t heal. So what does?
Healing emotional wounds is a complex process, and there is no one-size-fits-all remedy. However, since the 1980s studies have repeatedly shown that writing about the trauma can help. According to James W. Pennebaker, PhD, one of the leading authorities on the effects and practices of writing for healing,
The evidence is mounting that the act of writing about traumatic experience for as little as fifteen or twenty minutes a day for three or four days can produce measurable changes in physical and mental health. Emotional writing can also affect people’s sleeping habits, work efficiency, and how they connect to others. Indeed, when we put our traumatic experiences into words, we tend to become less concerned with the emotional events that have been weighing us down.*
Do you continue to be weighed down by events in the past? Writing about those events honestly and from your heart can help you make meaning of what happened, as well as better understand others’ points of view. If you’ve tried writing and it hasn’t helped, perhaps a new approach to writing about the trauma might help. For the most positive effects, choose an emotional issue that is currently bothering you and where enough time has elapsed that you feel ready to write about it; there’s no need to open up traumas that have already scarred over or to force yourself to write about something that is too painful to think about.
This week’s journal writing prompts offer a number of different ways to write about loss or trauma. This week, try something new:
- How has this trauma or issue influenced other aspects of your life: work, family, personal relationships, living situation, and so on?
- In what ways has this emotional upheaval made you more vulnerable, and in what ways has it make you less vulnerable?
- What have you learned by going through this trauma that now affects the way you make decisions? Write about positive decisions you’ve made or believe you will make as a result of what you went through.
- Write a letter to your past self—the self that went through the loss or trauma—from your today self. What would you say to comfort her? What advice would you give? Offer your past self the acceptance and love that s/he needs.
- Write about the event in the third person, as though it happened to someone else. Change the location and, if possible, the gender of this someone else. After you’ve described the event and its effects on the person, read your story aloud. How does reading and hearing about the event as though it happened to someone else change your perspective?
- If you’ve suffered as a result of someone else’s actions, write about the event from his or her perspective. What was his background and what was going on in his life at the time? What does forgiving another person mean, and what would it take for you to forgive him or her?
- Write for twenty minutes, beginning with, “If that hadn’t happened, I …” let whatever comes up, come up, write about it.
* Writing to Heal: A guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma & Emotional Upheaval, James W. Pennebaker, Ph.D., 2004, Raincoast Books.