5 Tips to get the most out of your Expressive Writing practice
Expressive writing exercises help you process traumatic events. There are many ways to approach them, and you will find what works best for you through trial and error. Here are a few tips I found helpful and hope you do, too:
Write in the first person
I feel... I think... I want... - this time it really is all about you! If your situation involves other people, by all means, write down what they said and did. But for this exercise, keep the focus on how you reacted and how it made you feel.
Write about a traumatic event
Traumas are defined as “deeply distressing or disturbing experiences”. Everyone has different thresholds and coping ability, so all traumas are different. Every experience is valid. Your trauma can be way in the past or quite recent. It can be a single event, or a series of triggers. It can be something that happened to someone else, but that deeply affects you personally.
We have all experienced difficult times, and life is often too hectic to deal with them. Even mild trauma can end up manifesting in ulcers, fights, or depression if it’s not processed. Especially when pushed down and ignored, trauma has a way of bursting out when you least need it. Expressive writing exercises help avoid and process those outbursts.
Write with complete transparency
This is for you, nobody else is going to see what you wrote. You don’t have to tell anyone, but you have to be 100% honest with yourself. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar. Don’t gloss over the hard parts, that’s exactly what this exercise is for. Work through where you felt inadequate or wronged, and the insights will appear. If you do decide to talk about it, you will have new vocabulary and a sense of calm.
Write for 15-20 minutes
15-20 minutes may seem like a long time, but it isn’t. Especially if you’re new to the exercise, you will take some time to get into the flow and rhythm of writing. And then you may want to describe the situation. And then you may want to get into the feelings. And then that may remind you of another thing that happened that might be connected. And then you may investigate and write that one down, too. And then you might find new parallels you hadn’t considered before. And then you may want to write down how it should have happened in an ideal world, or how you would deal with it next time.
Even if nothing is coming, write the last word or sentence over and over again. Or write an affirmation like “I love myself from head to toe” over and over again. Keep that pen on paper for 20 minutes and reward yourself for the discipline. In fact, 20 minutes may not be enough! If you’re in the middle of it, and you feel safe and not panicked, keep going. Otherwise, it’s ok to rest after 20 minutes and pick it back up where you left off the next day.
Expressive writing is hard emotional labor. You might feel emotionally exhausted, and maybe even a little down. That should lift after a few hours and leave you feeling relieved and like a load has been lifted.
Read and evaluate what you wrote
When you’re done writing, allow some time to re-read and reflect on what you put down on paper. How did the exercise itself make you feel? Were you able to dive as deep as you wanted? Did you expect to find what you did? Did anything surprise you?
If you feel closure, you might choose to rip up the paper and destroy it. If you’re not worried about other people finding it, you might choose to keep and store it. Then you can revisit your writing in a week, a month, or a year. Either way, pay attention to how you feel when you’re thinking about that same topic you worked through. Hopefully, it got easier to hold it in your mind and view it without previous emotional entanglement.