When someone is suffering emotionally, the standard suggestion for — oh, the last hundred years or so — is “Go talk to someone.” It’s the default. It’s been so widely accepted that it’s not even questioned — like “Eat your vegetables,” or “Brush your teeth.”
But for many people with PTSD, talking about traumatic memories can make their symptoms worse — worse than if they were to do nothing at all. This is particularly bad news because language is so crucial to emotional healing. Disclosing secrets, sharing pain by putting feelings into words — these are important way that human beings process experiences. It’s how we learn from mistakes, and how we transform intense stress into a mere memory.
In a study conducted by Bessel van der Kolk MD (professor of psychiatry at Boston University Medical School and founder of the Trauma Center in Brookline MA), people struggling with trauma agreed to have brain scans while they were thinking about something. Some of the participants were asked to think of the worst thing that ever happened to them. A control group thought instead of neutral things. The differing results were clear and dramatic.
The neutral-thoughts group showed fairly normal brain activity. For the group that remembered trauma, however, the scans showed a marked impairment of the left frontal lobe, with the most diminished brain activity in Braca’s area, which governs speech. On the right side of the brain however, there was a storm of activity! The right hemisphere is where emotions and the autonomic nervous system (the fight or flight response) are regulated.
In other worse, the group that focused on bad memories became emotionally overreactive, while losing some of their cognitive functioning and the ability say what they were feeling.
For Dr. Van der Kolk, this conformed with his observations of hundreds of patients who had been seeing him for trauma-related problems. Therapy sessions left them upset and agitated, and recovery was rare. He set about studying the work of other researchers/clinicians, and inviting his own patients to try new and promising approaches to recovery. He summarizes what he learned in the book “The Body Keeps the Score,” and his recommendations include (as the title suggests) movement practices, as well as meditation, neurofeedback, and writing. I cover these elsewhere in this blog, and will speak more extensively about treatments in my upcoming video course (see end of this post).
But lets zero in on writing, which I love because it’s free, easy to do anywhere, and very powerful at helping to restore emotional calm and mental order after intense stress and dysregulation.
A study from Johns Hopkins University, published in 2015, shows that speaking and writing originate in two very different parts of the brain, so this begins to explain why people who get overwhelmed by telling their own stories feel a sense of release after writing the same information. James Pennebaker PhD (professor of psychology at University of Texas at Austin) calls this “expressive writing.” He’s led research that’s shown that writing about negative feelings (for just 20 minutes a day) not only relieves the harsh emotions, but boosts immune health, even months after a person stops the writing exercise.
Writing offers a quick way to re-regulated a stressed mind, and that’s why I’ve made it the cornerstone healing strategy in my new online course “Healing Childhood PTSD” (coming out in June). Brain re-regulation is what needs to happen for progress in recovery to really take hold. A person whose brain and nervous system are regulated is in a much better position to benefit from talk therapy or any other approach to treatment.
I learned this specific writing technique 24 years ago (before I knew that was the name for my problem). The woman who showed me was a sober alcoholic in AA, and she taught me how to get relief from my intense distress by getting my fearful and resentful thoughts out of my head and onto a piece of paper. (You’ll recognize some 12-step words here and there in the video.)
At the time I learned this, I just wanted to feel better. Little did I know it would help me re-regulate my (then) undiagnosed PTSD. I still follow this practice twice a day. I encourage you to give it a try and contact me through comments or my contact e-mail to tell me how it goes!
By the way…
You can learn this daily practice too! I tell you how in “Healing Childhood PTSD” , a self-paced course with 32 videos about how PTSD happens, what it does to us, and how ordinary people can begin healing and connecting again, whether or not they have access to professional help. You can learn more about the course or register here!