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Cope with trauma and mental health through creative nonfiction

adult journaling

April 17, 2020

Writing can be a cathartic, therapeutic way to process negative emotions of grief or trauma, or to cope with mental health. Our Rothschild Branch had organized an event on this very topic that was originally going to be held last night, but that event has since been rescheduled for October 15

For those who planned on attending the event today, we wanted to explore the idea of using writing to process negative or traumatic events, and offer some tips and tools that will help get you started and feeling inspired. Before you get started writing, you'll want to think about your intent. What is the intent of your writing? Will be just for you, or do you plan to share it publicly? Either way, the writing should be for you. Then, decide if you will write in the first person or the third person. The first person will feel more personal, and will bring you closer to your memories, while the third person will provide you with a bit more distance (as if you're an outside observer). 

Expressive Writing

Next, you'll begin the expressive writing phase. Expressive writing can help you organize your thoughts or experience and give meaning to the traumatic experience. The process might also help with the ability to regulate emotions, and the act of constructing a story around your trauma can help break you out of cyclical thinking or rumination. Once people open up about their private experience they are more likely and often feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts with others which can help with the healing process. Timing is also important, writing too soon after a traumatic experience can be worse, if you aren’t mentally ready to go through the process, the suggested length of time to wait is two months after the experience.

A common practice or place to start is to ‘purge’ your thoughts, feelings, anything you have relating to the experience and then step back and analyze what you have. That initial stream of consciousness writing isn’t necessarily the cathartic part of writing, the actual benefits are gleaned from looking at that mess of words and analyzing your feelings and emotions. Making connections between act and emotion, finding the ‘why’ in the irrationality. It’s okay to walk away. If you’re getting worked up over your writing and feeling panicked take a break, come back to it tomorrow.

Creative Writing

If there's not one specific experience you want to work through, you can get started by expressing your current feelings or emotions through creative writing, beginning with writing prompts focused on introspection and mental health.

Unacknowledged emotions can lead to depression, writing can be a way for you to locate and address these emotions while analyzing where they came from and why. Writing can also be a way to practice mindfulness, writing 15-20 minutes a day without downplaying your emotions can improve your mental health according to research from Cambridge University Press. It allows you to completely focus on what you are writing, taking your mind and energy away from other things that bother you or overcrowd your mind. Doing this everyday allows you to understand your actions and behaviors better and as a result relieve anxiety.

You can use writing as a way to record different mental and emotional periods, as a way to compare one to another. Using bipolar as an example, one could write when feeling manic and write when feeling depressed, then compare the two. This can be a powerful way to illustrate mental illness and the show you the nuances of each state. Or, write when you’re anxious and later analyze the writing when you're feeling more calm, and reflect on your thought process, what the speed of your writing was like and how it conveys the state of mind behind it? In college, I wrote a piece comparing unmedicated panic and medicated panic. The unmedicated portion used very little punctuation and the pace was very fast. When read,. it made the reader feel as though they were feeling the panic as well.  

A great illustration of writing for mental health is the following passage, written by Simone Yemm:

“Beneath the bluest of skies, clouds can gather. This week my clouds collided in a cacophony of noise. Many of us with mental health issues are lured by the seductive whisper of maladaptive coping mechanisms, and traversing darkness can blind the strongest of us to any light ahead. To stay safe and whole I need a way to store emotional pain. It’s taken decades, but I finally have a healthy place to steady me when my soul succumbs to chaos.

I write.

I use words to weave a cloak of self-care. I let the stream of consciousness burn through my fingers. I blog. I share with trusted friends. Write journals. Make notes on my phone. I write anywhere I can. And when I’m done writing, my spirit is a little softer and my heart a little calmer.”  

You can also get some inspiration for writing from works of fiction as well. Below are two examples of fiction writing where characters mental illness through the written word:

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

The Right Side by Spencer Quinn


In closing, I've included some questions and writing prompts that will hopefully get you thinking, and give you some direction on what you want to write.

Writing Prompts

-What are you proud of?

-Write about a time you were motivated

-Share a childhood memory

-When is your earliest memory?

-Make a list of your favorite people and why

-Make a list of your happiest memories

-Share a dream you’ve had

-Who is your family?

-What’s your role in your family?

-How much does your neighborhood define who you are?

-How often do you cry?

-What don’t people know about you, and why?

-What ethical dilemmas have you faced?

-Do you believe everything happens for a reason?

-What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?

-How do you archive your life?

-Have you ever been in love?

-How would you like people to describe you?

-Make a specific and personal list of self-care

Community Writing