We know that childhood trauma is strongly associated with poor mental and physical health in later life (e.g. see the ACE study) due to the hazardous, longterm effects of prolonged and repetitive toxic stress and the effect that has on the mind, brain and body e.g. due to the prolonged overproduction of the stress hormone, cortisol. In connection with this, you may wish to read my article about how the experience of severe and prolonged exposure to childhood trauma may reduce our life-expectancy by 19 years.
It follows then that if we can reduce the psychological effects of trauma over the longterm, we can also improve our physical health.
Trauma therapy aims to achieve just this by helping us to process our trauma experiences (as long as we feel safe and secure enough) integrate them into our personal historical narratives (or, more simply, our ‘life-story) in a healthily processed manner.
The study described below suggests that writing about our traumatic experiences (if we feel safe and secure enough to do so – see above) may be one way to help us achieve this, i.e. help us to process and integrate our traumatic experiences and consequently benefit our health.
Relevant to the above is a study conducted by Pennebaker (1986) that was carried out to see if writing about one’s traumatic experience was beneficial.
The study involved students who were asked to spend 15 minutes writing about the most traumatic/stressful thing that had ever happened to them. They were required to carry out this writing exercise every day over 4 consecutive days. They were also encouraged to describe their most profound and, if applicable, (previously) secret thoughts and feelings relating to the traumatic/stressful event/experience about which they had chosen to write. Although some of the students found the exercise emotionally distressing, when given the option of whether to continue taking part in the experiment or not, they all wanted to carry on rather than leave the study. (I refer to this group as GROUP 1).
In order to find out whether it was writing about the trauma that could be helpful or if just writing, in general, was beneficial, a control group was also set up. Those in the control group also carried out the 15-minute writing exercise over the 4 day period, the only difference being that they wrote about neutral topics (GROUP 2).
THE RESULTS OF THE STUDY:
All of those who had taken part in the study were followed up over a six month period and it was found that individuals who had written about a traumatic/stressful experience made significantly fewer visits to the doctor than those in the group that had written about a neutral topic thus suggesting those in the first group had gained health benefits by writing specifically about their traumatic/stressful experience. However, it was also found that those in GROUP 1 had relatively higher blood pressure and higher self-reports of negative feelings immediately after completing the writing exercise (though they felt more positive a few days later) compared to those in GROUP 2.
IMPORTANCE OF TYPE OF LANGUAGE USED WITHIN THE WRITING EXERCISES:
Pennebaker (1986) also examined the type of language students had used in their writing exercises.
He found, for example, that those who used the word ‘because’ the most, in comparison with the other students in GROUP 1, tended to benefit more than their counterparts and Pennebroke suggested that this may be because it showed they were often trying to make sense of’ what had happened to them. He also found that those in GROUP 1 who transitioned, during the writing exercises from initially writing in the first person singular to, later on in the writing exercises, writing in the third person singular were also particularly likely to be benefited – this, Pennebaker surmised, may be because the alteration in the use of grammar indicated that they were trying to comprehend what had occurred to them using a multiple-perspective approach so that they were able to analyze what had happened to them from a variety of psychological angles.
THERAPIES THAT HELP US TO PROCESS THE PAST:
Therapies that may help us to process the past include the following:
- DESENSITIZATION THERAPY – This involves reflecting on the trauma, including sensory details (i.e.details pertaining to the five senses), feelings and thoughts associated with it with the aim of this process leading the individual to become ‘desensitized’ to thinking g about this information – i.e. reaching a stage in which thinking about this material is significantly less emotionally distressing and less physiologically activating (i.e. reduces feelings of hypervigilance and hypersensitivity to stress).
- COGNITIVE PROCESSING THERAPY – This form of therapy aims to help the individual identify and overcome thoughts that are preventing him/her from attaining resolution of the trauma s/he has experienced.
It also involves specific writing tasks involving writing about one’s traumatic experience including as much detail as possible about sensory elements of the experience (i.e. relating to touch, taste, vision, hearing and smell) and also about thoughts and feelings one experienced during the traumatic event.
The individual undergoing is also encouraged to read out what s/he has written to him/herself every day and also to his/her therapist during the session following the written task (so having a therapist one can trust and feel comfortable with is vital, as it is in all therapeutic relationships).
Should You Start A Blog?
I therefore strongly recommend others who have experienced the pain of mental illness in their lives also start a blog. However, there is one proviso: it is important that you feel well enough to embark upon a blog, especially one which may stir up painful past memories which, in turn, could trigger symptoms.
Writing As Therapy :
If we were emotionally wounded as children, writing down our thoughts and feelings, perhaps in a journal, can be extremely therapeutic. Or, if we are particularly creative, writing a novel or poetry about early experiences can be extremely cathartic.
Alternatively, writing a letter to the person/people who hurt us, explaining how their treatment of us has affected us, can also be extremely helpful (whether or not we actually send the letter).
Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear writers say, because of the difficult early experiences they have had, that they actually feel compelled to write and start to feel unwell if they are somehow prevented from doing so. Franz Kafka is an example of this – he had a very bad relationship with his father and, as well as writing novels (and the well known short story – Metamorphosis), he wrote a famous letter to his father (although he never actually sent it).
Above – Franz Kafka
EXTERNALIZATION : One of the main reasons why writing about our early life trauma can be so effective at helping us to feel better is that it gives us the opportunity to EXTERNALIZE what has happened to us, rather than keeping it painfully bottled up inside.
It also helps us to organize our thoughts about what happened to us, as well as helping us to gain a better understanding of how we have been affected by our experiences. Indeed, understanding what has caused us to have problems in our adult lives is of fundamental importance if we are to properly recover.
Furthermore, writing about our negative experiences helps us to put distance between them and ourselves and allows us to view things more objectively. This can come as a great relief and lessen any painful, intrusive thoughts we may have been suffering.
Or What About Conducting A Self-Case Study?
Research carried out by Fraser et al. (2010) looked at whether writing self-case studies psychologically benefitted a group of counselling students (they were set the task of conducting a self-case study as a part of their course on cognitive therapy. After they had carried out this task they were interviewed about what effect it had had on them. The majority of students reported that, as a result of having carried out their own self case study, they had experienced TRANSFORMATIONAL LIFE CHANGES.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).
Fraser, Niccy & Wilson, Jan. (2010). Self-case study as a catalyst for personal development in cognitive therapy training. The Cognitive Behaviour Therapist. 3. 107 – 116. 10.1017/S1754470X10000097.
Pennebaker, J. W., & Beall, S. K. (1986). Confronting a traumatic event: Toward an understanding of inhibition and disease. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 95(3), 274–281. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-843X.95.3.274