How to Journal Through a Traumatic Event

Stressful situations are a part of everyday life. Like most people, you cope with each situation and move on. But what if you have endured an extremely stressful, in fact, traumatic event that you mentally relive over and over? Is there anything you can do to break the pattern of repetitive thoughts and get on with your life?Try journaling.Journaling about a traumatic event may help you begin to understand how and why the event happened and what you can do to get over it. What’s more amazing is that it may take only a few days of writing to get you on your way.The Effects of Traumatic EventsOnly you can know if an event has been traumatic for you. It can be a one-time occurrence, such as experiencing the death of a loved one, a car accident, a crime, a natural disaster or other frightening situation. Or it can be ongoing, such as having a serious illness, coping with unemployment, keeping a big secret from others or dealing with an abusive relationship. According to University of Texas at Austin psychology professor James W. Pennebaker, Ph.D., “It’s not traumatic unless the person is continuing to live with it—worrying about it, getting upset about it. It’s still a feature of that person’s everyday life.”Pennebaker says that it’s natural for any person to be preoccupied by recent highly emotional events. However, when that preoccupation continues for many months or years, it can lead to serious health and behavior problems such as poor sleep patterns, memory loss, cardiovascular disease, decreased immunity, social isolation, overeating and drug and alcohol abuse.Ways Journaling HelpsSo how can journaling help you heal from a traumatic event? Pennebaker and his colleague at the University of Texas at Austin, Psychology Professor and YouBeauty Psychology Advisor Art Markman, Ph.D., describe journaling’s effects:

  •  It gives you a way to acknowledge your thoughts and feelings about the event. Giving yourself permission to voice what you are going through is an important step in the healing process.
  • It helps you externalize the traumatic event. By using written words, says Markman, “You’re separating the terrible thing that happened to you from the emotion that was associated with it. That’s what helps decrease the stress you feel.”
  • It helps you create a story that you can tell about the event. By organizing your thoughts and feelings into a coherent narrative, you may find a different perspective about what you have endured, and thus greater meaning.
  • It breaks the cycle of rumination by changing your brain patterns. As you begin to think and feel differently about the event, your brain forms new signal pathways that bypass the older entrenched ones. This can turn off the chronic release of stress hormones and the physical damage they cause to your body, and can give you the energy to make behavioral changes in your life.

 How to Journal Through a Traumatic EventPennebaker says that it’s not really useful to try journaling while you’re in the midst of experiencing a traumatic event. To reap the long-term health benefits that journaling can provide, you’ll need to be in a mental place where you can get some distance on the event in order to reflect on it.Pennebaker should know. For over 25 years, he has been a leading researcher in the long-term healthful effects of journaling. In his book “Opening Up,” he describes a writing procedure he developed that has proved effective for many people coping with trauma and other kinds of stress. Here’s what he suggests:

  • For 15 minutes a day over four consecutive days, write about the troubling event. Really let go and explore in as much depth as possible your thoughts and feelings about what happened. You should include how you felt about what happened, how you feel about it now and how you feel the event is affecting your life, work, relationships and so on. Try to go deeper each day.
  • Don’t worry about spelling, grammar or penmanship. If you’re afraid someone will see your writing, you can destroy it after you finish. It’s the act of journaling that promotes the healing process.
  • You can write about the same event each day or choose another one. Just make sure you write about something that is emotionally significant for you.

A Few Important DisclaimersWhile journaling has helped many people deal with trauma and stress, Pennebaker and Markman are quick to caution that it’s not the only way to heal trauma and it isn’t guaranteed to work for everyone.Journaling is not an easy fix. Like embarking on a new exercise regimen, it’s quite common to feel discomfort as you begin, and you may have to keep at it before you begin to feel the long-term benefits of journaling. But don’t give up.If you choose to try journaling to relieve traumatic emotional pain—if only for a few days—you just might find that you’ll begin to sleep, work and interact better. You’ll gain a deeper understanding of an event that no longer holds you hostage in your life.Want To Know More?To learn more about James Pennebaker’s research and methods, visit his website,or read his book “Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions.”Jeanette Leardi is an instructor of journaling, memoir-writing, personal mythmaking and storytelling. A longtime freelance writer and editor, her publishing experiences also include staff positions at Newsweek, Life, People, and Condé Nast Traveler magazines, and The Charlotte Observer.

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