Writing: Important Tool to Treat PTSD


If you’re reading this blog, then you’ve probably already guessed that I really like to write! So you can probably imagine that writing was something I did all through my PTSD recovery. Yes, it’s true, I’ve got 20 journals from those years, and my memoir about overcoming symptoms of posttraumatic stress is being published in 2012. (You can take a sneak peek of my PTSD memoir here.)

So, it won’t surprise you to hear that today I’m very excited by Alison Bergblom Johnson’s guest post as it’s all about the benefits of writing through tough emotional processes. Allison founded Writing Mental Illness to help break through discrimination of people with mental illness. She helps people with mental illness tell their stories effectively. I wonder how her ideas will inspire you….

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Writing PTSD

Writing about our illnesses – telling our own stories with power and grace is highly important to individual and societal change. There is a variety of research supporting writing as healing, most notably James Pennebaker’s work. Also telling our own stories powerfully helps those without PTSD to understand what having PTSD is like.


Personally, I believe that the qualities that make for healing writing are the same as those that make for good writing. Pennebaker’s research suggests that healing writing should include both fact and emotion. Other factors that make for good writing include grounding your story in a specific time and place and telling only a small slice of your story at a time.


There are many effective works of literature which address PTSD. One of my favorites is Push, by Sapphire. The movie Precious is based on Push.

What is most inspiring to me about Push is the message that by being able to write our story we can have a different relationship with it, be situated differently in relation to it. In the novel, the teacher Ms. Rain gently pushes Precious to tell her story. When Precious is first writing in her journal Ms. Rain writes back to her. Having a sympathetic reader is very important for all of us. This reader may be a friend or a therapist or a teacher, but most important they are sympathetic and eager to hear what we have to say.


Choose a time each day for the next week to sit down and write. Give yourself fifteen minutes. Time yourself. Tell yourself you will write for fifteen minutes, but that at the end of those fifteen minutes you will stop. If during those fifteen minutes you struggle with knowing what to write simply write “I don’t know what to write.”

Write about a small time-limited event. This event may be, as in Push, walking from home to the Hotel Teresa, or sitting in math class and being called into the principal’s office and the resulting conversation. Writing small makes for better, more coherent writing. Remember there will be time to tell as much as you want to tell, but for now begin with a small, narrow slice.

As in Push don’t worry too much about spelling. If on first writing math comes out maff, or father as fahver then let it be. Don’t judge your spelling or grammar, just write. If you write on a computer disable your spelling and grammar checker so that it doesn’t empower your inner critic.

I encourage you to start by writing about the effects of PTSD as opposed to its causes. Start with writing about what it feels to be startled or have overwhelming emotions or have a flashback rather than write directly about the underlying trauma. If you feel it is necessary to your narrative to write about a flashback try to avoid describing the traumatic event immediately, perhaps instead symbolizing it with a single image.

Remember to ground whatever you do choose to write about in a specific time and place. You might wish to read Push if you are affected by dissociation or lose time. Push does a great job of remaining grounded in the real world while showing where the mind goes when it isn’t in the here and now.

Sapphire writes of walks Precious takes from home to school. But the walks aren’t a straight line. During the walks Precious gets caught in memories and flashbacks to the extent that at times she forgets where she is going.

To summarize, begin by writing fifteen minutes every day. Use a timer and only write for fifteen minutes. If you don’t know what to write, write “I don’t know what to write.” Write first about being startled or flashbacks or other symptoms of PTSD instead of writing about the underlying trauma. Ground everything you write in a specific time and space. Write about a short time-limited event. Write with a sympathetic reader in mind. You might imagine a friend or therapist will read your piece. Remember in the end it is your choice whether you share what you wrote or not.

Writing can be a very powerful source of healing as well as social change. Think about what you wished people knew about PTSD and write that. Good luck.



Creating Literature from Psychiatric Disability:


The opinions in this post are solely those of the author. To contribute to ‘Professional Perspective’ contact Michele.


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