Mental health

How Journaling About Trauma Can Help

Journaling about trauma can help trauma survivors process their emotions after distressing events. And many people are trauma survivors. In fact, 70% of the population experiences at least one traumatic event during their lifetime. The percentage seems painfully low when you understand the variety of life experiences, including death and job loss, that can be considered traumatic. 

People process traumatic events in different ways. It’s common to have some difficulty adjusting after a traumatic event, but when symptoms linger or worsen with time, they can threaten your physical and emotional well-being.

Fortunately, there are effective ways—like discussing the event, therapy, and journaling—that can help you process trauma and learn to cope with what happened to you.

Understanding Trauma

The American Psychological Association defines trauma as an ongoing emotional response to an extreme event or series of happenings. Trauma is most frequently associated with life-threatening events. However, other types of distressing experiences can also be traumatizing. People can experience emotional trauma as a result of traumatic events happening to them or learning about them happening to others.

Examples of traumatic events include:

  • Abuse or neglect
  • Death of a loved one
  • Accident or injury
  • Sexual assault
  • Natural disasters, such as earthquakes, floods, or fires
  • Violent crime or living in an environment where rates of violent crime are high
  • Chronic or life-threatening illness
  • Bullying or harassment
  • Racism
  • Childhood abuse (sexual, physical, verbal, or emotional)
  • Combat or military service
  • Generational or learned trauma

When trying to understand your own or someone else’s trauma, it’s important to remember that every person responds to stressful events differently. For example, you and a friend may both be in the same near-fatal auto collision. But while your friend recovers quickly, you find yourself experiencing ongoing symptoms of trauma. 

This response is because you and your friend have different coping skills, histories, life experiences, genetic makeup, and support systems. The same event can leave one person working to overcome trauma while the other moves on quickly and never seems to think about what happened. 

While the symptoms of emotional trauma vary, there are many that people who experience a traumatic happening share. 

Common symptoms of trauma include:

  • Anger 
  • Extreme fear
  • Anxiety
  • Guilt
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling jumpy and nervous
  • Headaches
  • Digestive problems
  • Flashbacks
  • Sleep problems
  • Social withdrawal
  • Nightmares
  • A sense of persistent alarm
  • Avoiding the people or places that remind you of the triggering event

In most cases, the reactions to a traumatic event subside naturally over time, but that’s not always true. Some people have difficulty adjusting after a traumatic event and need professional help to make sense of the happening and manage symptoms.

Why is it Important to Process Trauma?

If you don’t process and determine how to cope with trauma, you may experience difficulty in your day to day life moving forward. Unresolved trauma can influence the way you parent, how you treat yourself, and how you relate to your partner. Unhealed trauma can also affect your physical and mental health. 

Processing trauma means allowing yourself to feel the emotions and think the thoughts related to your trauma. Those thoughts and feelings can be painful and frightening, but avoiding them prevents you from moving forward. Processing doesn’t mean you have to relive distressing events or rehash the painful details of your experiences. Instead, it means you work to understand the trauma and your body and mind’s natural responses to it. A greater understanding of how your body responds to trauma gives you more control over how you feel about it. Trauma-focused therapies help people see how trauma has influenced their lives and teaches the skills needed to cope with the stress of trauma in more productive ways.

Other benefits of processing trauma include:

  • Promoting emotional healing and well-being
  • Preventing long-term negative effects and chronic conditions
  • Breaking generational cycles of trauma 
  • Improving self-esteem, self-worth, and self-compassion
  • Enhancing relationships and interpersonal connections
  • Fostering personal growth and emotional resilience

If you or someone you care about is having difficulty with trauma, a combination of professional therapies and self-care habits like journaling to heal trauma can help.

Using Expressive Writing to Help Process Trauma

In the 1980s, psychologist Dr. James Pennebaker developed a type of writing therapy known as expressive writing. Expressive writing is a free-flowing type of writing that allows a person to focus on their deepest thoughts without worrying about grammar or spelling. 

Pennebaker developed expressive writing as a way to explore the potential health benefits of writing about emotionally-charged experiences. He ran controlled studies that asked participants to write about their most traumatic experiences. 

Pennebaker many benefits of expressive writing, including:

  • Better grades and work performance
  • Enhanced immune and lung function
  • Better memory
  • Improved sleep quality
  • Improved social life
  • Decreased anxiety, depression, and stress
  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Less pain and muscle tension

In short, Pennebaker found, and other studies have since confirmed, that writing about traumatic experiences can lessen their impact on a person’s well-being.

Expressive writing focuses more on feelings than actual events or memories. While narrative writing aims to tell a story, expressive writing isn’t bound to the traditional story arc of a beginning, middle, and end. 

When journaling about trauma through expressive writing, you may spend more time writing about your feelings or current issues than remembering the full story of a traumatic event. 

Pennebaker’s research on expressive writing has been replicated many times. His discovery is frequently referred to as the “Pennebaker Paradigm.”

a person journaling about trauma

To apply the Pennebaker technique to your own journaling practice:

  • Choose a topic to write about that is personal and important
  • Write for four consecutive days, 20 minutes per day
  • When you write, don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar 
  • Draw lines or repeat words, but keep your pen on the paper
  • Write only for your eyes
  • Stop writing if the experience is too emotionally intense
  • Make space for heavy emotions that should lessen in an hour or two

Give yourself time to reflect on your writing after the 20-minute writing period ends. If it feels comfortable, keep your expressive writing entries and reflect on them again a week or two after the last writing day. You may discover ideas or emotions you weren’t previously aware of.  

How Expressive Journaling Helps Process Trauma

Journaling is a valuable part of any plan to heal from trauma. Expressive writing specifically can improve your mental and physical health, decrease rumination and symptoms of depression, and decrease stress levels. 

Research on trauma shows that it damages brain tissue, but translating the emotions of trauma into words helps the brain reorganize itself. Feelings that are difficult to express out loud can be voiced through expressive writing. 

Benefits of incorporating expressive writing into your journaling practice include:

  • Emotional expression and release
  • Increased self-awareness and introspection
  • Validation and acknowledgment of emotions
  • Regaining control and empowerment
  • Creating a safe space for processing difficult memories
  • Identifying patterns and triggers
  • Tracking progress and growth over time

Journaling prompts for mental health are helpful tools that can enhance your expressive writing experience. Prompts are questions or suggestions that help people get past their own writing limits. 

You might use prompts regularly or rely on them to “kickstart” your journaling on days when you can’t think of your writing topics. 

Overcoming Challenges in Journaling about Trauma

Journaling is a fun, creative way to express your feelings and learn more about yourself. However, when you’re journaling about trauma, you may experience some difficult challenges. Diving deep into some of the most painful experiences of your life is understandably frightening. 

If you want to adopt journaling as a long-term practice, there will be times when you meet obstacles. Just like with eating healthy or getting enough exercise, there are days when you want to skip all your good habits. 

Consistency is as important in journaling as it is in eating right. Here are some of the most common challenges in journaling about trauma and tips to overcome them. 

Resistance or Fear 

Staring at a blank page or screen can bring up all kinds of questions and fears. What if writing about trauma triggers emotions you’re not prepared to handle? What if you re-experience the pain of the original event?

Remember that you are in charge of your journaling experience. You can stop writing at any time. If a topic feels too sensitive to explore, you don’t need to force yourself to continue. Allow yourself to start slowly and find a pace that feels comfortable for you. 

Emotional Overwhelm 

Writing about trauma can be emotionally overwhelming. You must permit yourself to stop a journaling session early if things get too intense. 

You may also want to take a few days’ break from writing about heavy topics. Journal about things that make you happy until you’ve regained emotional balance. Specifically, keeping a gratitude journal can help you focus on the positive aspects of your life and what you’re grateful for.

Also, make sure you have a support system in place, like a loved one or a therapist, in case you need to talk to someone after journaling about trauma. 

Lack of Motivation or Consistency 

Repeatedly using the same journaling technique can lead to boredom. Shake up your journaling routine by occasionally introducing new methods. 

In addition to the expressive writing technique, try writing about your dreams, making gratitude lists, or tracking your progress on your mental health goals. Incorporating prompts into your journaling habit also helps. 

Coping with Potential Triggers

Journaling helps you recognize your trauma triggers, but it can also activate them. Plan to ensure you have resources in place if journaling triggers you emotionally. 

Ways to cope with triggers include:

  • Listen to soothing music
  • Visualize yourself in a safe place
  • Practice breathing exercises
  • Go for a walk or engage in some type of physical movement
  • Meet with a friend

Seeking professional support is also valuable. Consider getting the support of a mental health professional to help you work through your feelings after a traumatic event.

Lack of Closure

You may find that journaling about trauma doesn’t seem to help. It could make you think more about the traumatic happening and how you don’t feel like you’re coping well with it. If this is the case, consider seeking help from a mental health professional. A professional can help you better understand what happened to you and how your body and mind responded to it. This understanding can help you better cope with trauma. While it may not provide closure about the event, it can help you come to terms with it and learn skills for moving forward.

Journal Prompts for Journaling about Trauma

The first step in any journey is often the most difficult. The same is true with journaling about trauma. Journal prompts are useful for getting you out of your head and helping you see things differently. They can inspire and enrich your journaling practice, whether you use them every day or just a few times a month. 

Choose one of the following trauma journaling prompts when journaling about trauma:

  • Describe a specific traumatic event I’ve experienced.
  • How do I feel when I think about the trauma I experienced?
  • How do I want to feel? What steps can I take to help me get closer to those feelings?
  • What has been the impact of trauma on my life? How has it influenced my relationships, self-esteem, or well-being?
  • What’s holding me back from moving forward after trauma? 
  • What makes me feel unsafe? How could I re-establish that safety? 
  • One coping mechanism I use to deal with trauma is …
  • How effective is this coping mechanism? Are there alternatives that may be better for me?
  • Things that trigger my trauma include …
  • How can I manage or avoid these triggers?
  • What support systems have helped me deal with trauma? How can I receive more of that support in my life?
  • How has my perspective on life changed since the trauma?
  • Are these changes in my perspective positive or do I wish they didn’t exist?
  • How can I change perceptions that aren’t serving me well?
  • What steps am I already taking toward healing? What steps can I take in the future?
  • What meaning can I derive from the traumatic experience?

As you explore journaling prompts, remember you can use a variety of methods for journaling to heal. In addition to expressive writing, you can write lists, set goals, or follow other trains of thought that the prompts may inspire. It’s your journal and your journey, so make it work for you. 

Explore How Journaling About Trauma Can Bring Healing

Journaling about trauma is just one approach to improving your mental health and living life to the fullest. Journaling can be a powerful tool—on its own and as part of a professional therapy treatment. 

If you’re experiencing symptoms of trauma, don’t ignore them. Unresolved trauma can lead to a host of mental and physical concerns that don’t simply go away on their own. Speak with a mental health professional to create a wellness plan that addresses all of your needs.

About the Author

Hannah Van Horn, MCMHC, LPC-C, is a mental health professional who specializes in helping trauma survivors navigate their healing journey. She is an advocate for making mental health accessible for all through written and digital content as well as face-to-face counseling services.

A photo of author Hannah Van Horn, MCMHC, LPC-C

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