Journaling through Your Trauma

As a kid, I always loved the idea of writing in a journal. So many of my favorite teeny-bopper books were written in the style of a young girl’s diary, and I figured I had an interesting enough life to warrant a written transcript of its events. Unfortunately, intention is only half the equation, and it turns out when it came to actually writing in a journal, I had absolutely zero follow-through. In my youth and immaturity, I just found it so incredibly boring and time consuming to sit down and memorialize my every thought!

Flash forward to college as a psychology major, and everywhere I turned, there seemed to be some new article or some new project on the power of journal writing for mental health. Specifically, a great many of my classes highlighted the work of Dr. Jamie Pennebaker, a leading psychologist and professor at the University of Texas, whom I had the distinct pleasure of hearing speak during a guest lecture series at my university.

During his talk, Pennebaker described that his first foray into researching expressive writing was spurred on by a random question on one of his health psychology surveys: “Have you ever had a traumatic sexual experience?” He later found that this trauma was highly correlated with adverse physical health symptoms, and that the secrecy surrounding this type of trauma seemed to make it more detrimental to health than other types of trauma. This led to the hypothesis that disclosing the trauma through writing might help alleviate individuals’ negative symptoms. Dozens of studies eventually showed that writing about our unfortunate experiences is correlated with a number of interesting and positive results: Fewer doctors’ visits, better grades, better sleep, better immune system functioning, and improved social functioning (just to name a few)! What mighty tools a little pen and paper can be!

Now how can simply writing about a traumatic experience be connected to such profoundly positive effects? Pennebaker and others believe that by consistently writing about their experiences, people are able to systematically gain greater coherence and perspective on the events in their lives. Participants in his studies often started out by writing a muddled and fractured account of their trauma, but eventually ended up with a lucid and reasoned story that they can give meaning to. And the introduction of context, perspective, and meaning seems to be the magic bullet for processing trauma at any level of care.

So if you are trying to work through a traumatic experience, or just a situation that is particularly sticky and difficult, maybe consider journaling about it! Your writing doesn’t have to be perfect or poetic; it doesn’t even need to be coherent to anybody but you! Just by committing to the act you are giving yourself the opportunity to gain a little perspective. All those blank pages are simply full of the possibility of healing.

Written by Helena Lorenz, B.S.

Heights Family Counseling Clinical Intake Specialist