This morning I made a bagel and eggs for breakfast. While I was toasting, buttering, and frying, the two lobes of my brain were working together to process my thoughts. During the normal course of life, the two sides of our brain talk to each other to make sense of the world. The left side provides order and sequence, among other things. The right side captures images and sensations.
During a traumatic event, the left side of the brain shuts down, and the experience becomes “trapped” on the right side, where it gets “stuck” in the present. Because traumatic events are processed without the left side of our brain, they can’t be put in sequence with a beginning, middle, and end and placed in an appropriate “filing cabinet” in our brain. Those experiences live in the here and now and they’re triggered as flashbacks.
Traumatologists use a variety of approaches in healing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Popular therapies include cognitive behavior therapy, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), the Instinctual Trauma Response Model and Parts Therapy. The goal of trauma therapy is to alleviate symptoms and to provide closure for the trauma experience by moving it to the left side of the brain, where the story can be fully processed, given a beginning, middle, and end, and be filed in an appropriate place. This is often done through therapeutic processes, under the oversight of a therapist.
But those who suffer with PTSD can also undertake a number of approaches that help in the healing process.
Art therapy provides a visual guide for processing a trauma experience. The act of focusing on creation of the object helps the brain make connections. People who have experience trauma can often be overwhelmed by conscious or unconscious emotions and memories. Trauma is attached to body memory, and individuals first need to feel safe connecting to their experience and their bodies. Second, it’s important for the person to feel in charge of the process they will be working through–creating art or writing a story. They must be ready to work through the experience, mourn the pain and losses, and investigate how the experience has shaped them. Finally, they must be prepared to move forward in life.
Be sure to talk to your physical or mental health professional before beginning a writing program. The following approach is not considered a cure for PTSD symptoms, but one method to help make symptoms more manageable.
Begin by creating an image or scene (in art or in words) of a safe place–real or imagined. This place should give you a sense of serenity, peace, and safety. It’s a place you can return to in your thoughts. I envision a beach near my childhood home. I love the sound of the surf, the smell of the water, and the sound of the seagulls. Because I’m a person of faith, I often envision myself talking to Jesus in this “safe place” during times of prayer and meditation. But you may want to draw a picture of a favorite childhood place where you felt safe. A friend of mine drew a spot at a local aquarium where he grandfather used to take her. Whenever feelings/emotions seem to overwhelm you, you can return to your “safe place.”
This first job is to record the “historical” narrative–what happened. This is different from the “emotional” narrative of how your trauma influenced you. Have a supportive mental health professional or compassionate, caring friend help you work through a timeline of these experiences. Write about them as though you are a reporter viewing them through a window, not the person experiencing them. If you feel overwhelmed, step back to a safe emotional distance. Begin by creating a timeline and summarizing the most significant events. In this “chapter” of your book, your goal is to summarize what happened to you. Try to relate the facts from the vantage point of a compassionate observer–not to re-experience what happened.
In this section or chapter, write about what you lost, how you changed, how your trauma experiences impacted your life. Give yourself the opportunity to grieve. Show compassion, curiosity, and talk to the various broken “parts” of you that got stuck at various stages of your life.
Trauma changes us and “freezes” us at those moments of life where we were overwhelmed. Where did you become “stuck?” How did this influence your life? Speak to the wounded and broken parts of yourself. Allow these “parts” to talk to you. Show them compassion and curiosity. What do they need to say? What burdens are they carrying? Next, identify the challenges that the trauma(s) created.
How did life become more difficult? What challenges and limitations did your trauma create? How did you learn to maneuver through those experiences? What worked? What didn’t work? What new you would you like to become in the future, having growth through your pain and your challenges?
Who do you want to become? Trauma changes us, but resilience allows us to use our pain to move forward. How would you like to use your struggle to move forward? List small steps that take you in that direction. How can you best achieve these goals? What kind of support system will you need along the way?
Let the broken, wounded parts of you dream. They’ve been carrying heavy burdens (like being on “guard duty” or protecting you in other ways and with other harmful behaviors that once served to protect you. What new jobs could these parts be given so they could experience greater freedom and rest?
Research suggests that there is a therapeutic element in writing. Dr. Arthur W. Frank
writes about this in his book titled The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics, suggesting that writing is essential to healing.
Writing can also serve more immediate goals, like providing distraction from disturbing thoughts, which are a major symptoms of PTSD. Coloring or doodling, writing lists, or creating short stories or poetry can help provide both short-term and long-term relief.
What about YOU? Have you found writing to be helpful in managing your PTSD? Share your story with us.