A very common homework I give is journaling, or what the research calls expressive writing. There have been a number of good studies that look at how expressive writing can help you work through the effects of your trauma. Here is a brief summary of the findings.
Expressive writing can lower depressive symptoms for up to six months after writing for as few as three days. People who benefit the most are those who don't normally share their feelings (either in writing or verbally). Expressive writing can also lower "rumination" symptoms--the problem of over-thinking everything. Expressive writing has been shown to lower the number of visits a person makes to a doctor compared with those who don't write. It has also been shown to lower blood pressure.
If you are going to write, there actually is a right and a wrong way--at least in terms of how it affects your mental health. If you only write negative emotions about a traumatic event, you will likely end up with greater physicalillness symptoms compared to people who don't write about the trauma at all. This might be surprising, but your body will respond negatively if all you are able to do is vent about how upset you are.
There is time for venting, no doubt. But if you are looking to heal, you have to transition to more healthy expressive writing.
Research says that those who had a sense of positive growth surrounding their trauma were ones who wrote both their negative emotions and their thoughts about the trauma. The cognitive writing part (trying to "make sense" of what happened)) seems to help people find the benefits of having gone through the trauma, which helped them heal.
This is the language used in one study to facilitate the healthiest and most helpful form of writing about trauma:
"We would like you to keep a journal of your deepest thoughts and feelings about this topic over the next month. We are particularly interested in understanding how you have tried to make sense of this situation and what you tell yourself about it to help you deal with it. If the situation you’re describing does not yet make sense to you, or it is difficult to deal with, describe how you are trying to understand it, make sense of it, and deal with it and how your feelings may change about it."
That research article can be found here: http://transformationalchange.pbworks.com/f/stressjournaling.pdf
To summarize, both emotions and thoughts are important in journaling that leads to healing.
Several studies show that being aware of the benefits of going through negative events helps people adjust better. Writing can help facilitate that awareness.
One thing you need to be know is that the immediate result of writing might actually be increased stress. You might actually feel worse. But pushing through those initial negative feelings seems to be the key to getting better over time through your writing. Understand that it may get worse before it gets better. Be careful about assuming journaling isn't helping if you try it once or twice and don't get immediate results.
The truth is that social scientists are not totally sure whyjournaling helps people heal. But there are some theories. Some research and theory suggests that expressive writing may act as "exposure therapy" for people who have intrusive thoughts. If you typically try to avoid those thoughts or associated feelings, journaling can help you confront them easier and maybe get "healthier" doses of those emotions that you can manage easier.
Another theory says that unprocessed emotions, thoughts, and images are more difficult to deal with thanorganized emotions and thoughts. Journaling may allow you to organize, coherently, into a "story" form the thoughts and emotions--which may help you manage them better.
There is also some evidence that organizing your thoughts into a narrative or story format is better than just writing random thoughts with no structure. But, if you aren't able to create a coherent story yet, that's OK. Keep writing.
On occasion, you may also share some of what you have written or learned with some trusted people in your life. It helps you feel less isolated. You get a sense that you are not alone and that your pain is not yours alone to carry.
If you can engage both your feeling and thinking brain, so to speak, writing can become an important part of your trauma recovery process.
Dr. Adam M. Moore is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. He is assistant director of Brigham Young University’s comprehensive clinic and clinical director of Utah Valley Counseling–an outpatient mental health clinic that primarily focuses on treating pornography and sexual addiction and the trauma that partners of addicts experience. Dr. Moore has taught at Brigham Young University, Utah Valley University, and Argosy University. He is the recipient of a research award from the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and is currently President-Elect of the Utah Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.