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Putting Trauma Down in Words
The ways journaling can help survivors
- Jan 01, 2020
For myself, journaling started with one of those palm-sized hardcover diaries adorned with a photograph of fluffy white kittens on its cover, a shiny and obviously very secure gold lock holding it shut that only unlocked with tiny key that I hid inside of a hollow ceramic unicorn where I was sure my sister would never find it.
Inside, I unloaded all the woes of childhood, of which we all know there are many. I remember racing home after school to write in it first thing—I could tell early on there was something healing when I unpacked my thoughts via words.
Over thirty years later, it still works. Writing down my internal monologue can be therapeutic, and research shows this is especially true for those living through or who have previously survived some sort of trauma, like abuse and violence.
Psychology professor Matthew Tull, PhD, explains that writing can help people better cope with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, such as anger and anxiety, as well as lead to future positive growth.
“Expressive writing has been found not only to improve the symptoms of PTSD and coping with them, but it also appears to help foster post-traumatic growth, or the ability to find meaning in and have positive life changes following a traumatic event,” says Tull.
Writing to Spot Gaslighting, Escalation
Beyond self-care, journaling can also be one of the most important tools in a survivor’s toolbox to recognize abuse as it’s happening. Abusers who utilize gaslighting will convince survivors that abusive incidents didn’t occur, their memories are incorrect or they’ve blown an incident way out of proportion. Writing down abuse as soon as possible after it occurs (in a safe place where the abuser won’t find it) can help keep one’s memory straight.
Survivor Cheryl wrote in on an online survivor’s group that she used journaling for just this purpose during abuse.
“My ex seemed to have convinced himself of the lies he told. He appeared so sincere until he almost had me fooled that I'd made something up. It helped me keep my sanity and assured me that … my life was in danger.
Lynn, a survivor from the same group, journals as a reminder of why she left in the first place.
“Part of our survival system is recasting what happened to diminish the abuse, so writing things down so you can go back and remind yourself what actually happened and how much you suffered is crucial to staying safe and staying out.”
“Journaling saved my life,” writes survivor Janet. “I would use it to write the things I could not say to him, the things he did to me, and [to] my future self, so I would remember it was real.”
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Writing down memories of the abuse can also help a survive gauge when the abuse is escalating. Sometimes, it’s so gradual that it could be overlooked until it’s really bad. Advocates warn that abuse almost always intensifies over time. To better see just how dangerous your own situation is, take the Danger Assessment developed by Jacquelyn Campbell.
Writing for Evidence
In some courts, journal entries or abuse logs can help bolster a survivor’s case, adding another element of proof that abuse occurred. But survivors should be careful not to keep this type of diary in a place where the abuser can find it.
“The best way to get evidence out is to start emailing it to their lawyer,” says attorney, activist and author of the blog Argue Like a Girl, Giugi Carminati, JD in “Collecting Evidence of Abuse Without Danger.” “I ask my clients to send me the evidence, right away, as they get it. They can also drop off at my office. What most matters is to get it out from where the abuser may be able to get access to it.”
And if you don’t have a lawyer, consider emailing it to a trusted friend or family member. Just make sure you archive in a safe place or delete the sent emails afterward to avoid the abuser locating them.
Writing to Relieve Anxiety
As mentioned earlier, journaling can also be an outlet to alleviate worry and anxiety. After leaving an abusive partner, a survivor might be surprised by the feelings that linger, ranging from fear to depression. Once your body is in a safe place and you exit panic mode, your brain may start processing the trauma, bringing up a wide range of emotions. To sort them out, consider writing them down.
Loveisrespect.org suggests asking yourself the following questions in your journal:
- How are you feeling about everything now? Are there any ways you still feel unsafe or controlled by your partner? What will it take for you to feel totally safe?
- What does your support system look like? What kinds of things are you doing to take care of yourself as you’re healing?
- What are some things you are looking for in a future partner? What are some things you definitely want to watch out for or will not tolerate?
- What do you want your future to look like? What steps will it require to make that vision a reality?
Photo by Kaboompics.com from Pexels
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