Write About Feelings to Ease Stress & Trauma

“Write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come unsought for are commonly the most valuable.” – Francis Bacon

During times of intense stress or when recovering from traumatic incidents, there is often a sense of not being sure of how to effectively regulate emotions or deal with disturbing thoughts.  Sometimes, emotions may seem to be “all over the place” and thoughts may feel intrusive or unorganized.  Fortunately, there are strategies that you can implement into your life to deal with those intense emotions or intrusive thoughts.

According to research by Dr. James Pennebaker at the University of Texas at Austin, writing may help to organize thoughts about stressful or traumatic experiences as well as to regulate emotions.  It appears that the act of thinking about and organizing emotions as well as actively experiencing them is an effective way to give meaning to traumatic experiences.  When events that are either stressful or traumatic are experienced as chaotic or organized, the act of writing about them is a helpful way to make sense of and give meaning to these events.

Dr. Pennebaker explains that it may also be that the process of writing about such events is a useful means of regulating one’s emotions.  The act of writing about these events may serve as an intellectual and experiential exercise wherein the construction of a story about the events helps the individual break out of the cycle of rumination that can keep people stuck in repetitive thoughts and even enter into a state of depression.

Some studies have also shown that writing about a traumatic event immediately after its occurrence can actually make people feel worse.  The idea is that writing about a traumatic event “too soon” may be unhelpful because the individual may not be ready to face it yet.  It is important to be patient and compassionate towards ourselves and respect our own individual process with which we need to effectively face events.  Dr. Pennebaker advises individuals to wait at least one or two months after a traumatic event before writing about one’s thoughts and feelings surrounding it.

How to Use Writing to Ease Stress & Trauma

If you believe that writing about a stressful or traumatic event would be helpful to you, consider the following suggestions, based on Dr. Pennebaker’s research:

  • Choose a specific time period each day to engage in expressive writing.
  • Focus on a particularly stressful or traumatic experience as you begin to write.
  • If you are writing about a traumatic event, be sure to wait at least 1 or 2 months before engaging in expressive writing.
  • Write nonstop without pausing to deliberately focus on word choice, sentence structure, or grammar.
  • Allow your innermost feelings to emerge in your writing without inhibition or self-censorship.

What has been your past or present experience with engaging in uninhibited expressive writing?  Have you had positive experiences with writing about thoughts and feelings in general?  Many people who are not specifically dealing with a stressful or traumatic event find it quite useful to keep a handwritten or typed journal to record their thoughts, feelings, and experiences.  A journal can be an excellent tool for anyone who is interested in engaging in purposeful self-reflection and self-awareness.  Writing in a journal can also be a wonderful practice to intentionally explore your values, goals, and dreams.

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Featured image: Write by spaceamoeba / CC BY-SA 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

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