Writing to Heal

By Lucy Gleysteen

From PHN Issue 29, Summer 2016

Painful emotions can sometimes feel unmanageable. If you are feeling an emotional crisis and don’t have someone to reach out to, you may want to shift your emotional state to something that feels more tolerable. Writing can act as one of the building blocks towards creating a degree of emotional safety for yourself.

Most adults have experienced trauma. I use the word trauma to describe the impact of physical, sexual, emotional, or psychological harm. Trauma can have long term impacts on an individual’s physical and emotional wellbeing. Sometimes unmanageable emotional reactions can be a result of past traumas. For instance, if a person grew up in an environment where they were reprimanded for displaying emotions such as sadness, anger, or frustration, it might be confusing and difficult for that person as an adult to navigate emotions that feel overwhelming.

In the Spring 2016 Prison Health News, there was an article about how to start a mental health journal. This article is about how to use your journal as a tool to heal from trauma. Writing may be useful if you are looking for an outlet for emotional distress. It may also be helpful if you are living with anxiety, depression, and/or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Emotional Crisis Management

Your journal is a space where you can express strong emotions without the fear of being judged. This process can often bring relief and insight. Usually this type of writing helps you see a situation from a new perspective; it may also help you find ways to feel better now. Sometimes writing does not make you feel better. However, it can be an alternative to taking out your emotions through self-harm. At the very least, it can be a way of having control over the impact of your emotions.

Prompts to help you start writing:

  • Where am I at right now? (What are you feeling? What is going on in your mind? How does your body feel? What is the emotion that feels unmanageable?)
  • What led me here? (What was the event that triggered this emotional response? Why did it have such an enormous impact?)
  • How have I coped with this feeling in the past? (What have you done to get out of this headspace before? Who are all the people in your life that care about you and can support you? What are your best distractions?)

Writing to Understand Your Emotional Landscape

If you are trying to mend the wounds of past trauma, writing can help you take healing into your own hands. It can provide clarity around confusing emotional responses to incidents. Writing can also help you remember things. This can be scary sometimes, especially if the memories are painful. It can be hard to get started, so do what feels easiest to you at the time and focus on what you feel is the most important thing to deal with.

If you are at a loss for where to begin, you can write down the 20 most important things that have ever happened to you. By jotting down the details of an event, you can unravel some of the key moments that led you to the place you are now. This type of writing gives you an opportunity to step back and evaluate what you have been through, the ways you have survived, and how all of this impacts the person you are today.

  • What is the event you want to focus on?
  • What was the environment leading up to the traumatic event?
  • What was going on in your life, in your family, in your community?
  • What happened—what were the details?
  • What did this event teach you?
  • How did it shape who you are today?

Taking Care of Yourself After Writing

Sometimes writing can bring up anxiety and painful emotions and memories. If this happens, it is good to take a break and either write about something different or do an activity that brings you joy and lets you relax. If what you’re feeling is too much to manage on your own, you can try calling a friend or family member on the outside. If you don’t have that support system, you can see if your prison has a peer support group with people you can talk to.

If your mental state still feels like too much, you can do a few relaxation exercises to help you calm down. If relaxing is not something you like to do, you can also try doing something else to release the negative energy. This can include making noise, hitting your pillow, splashing cold water on your face, or stretching. Here’s an exercise that might help:

5-Sense Distraction Exercise

This activity is about focusing on all your senses as a way of distracting yourself from distressing emotions. Focus on:

5 things you can see and what they look like,
4 things you can touch and how they feel,
3 things you can hear,
2 things you can smell,
1 thing you can taste.

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