Education & Career Trends: Pandemic Diaries — Writing can help us heal from trauma

5 min read

Edition: July 20th, 2021
Curated by the Knowledge Team of ICS Career GPS

Narrating the story of a past negative event or an ongoing anxiety “frees up” cognitive resources. (Image Credit: Getty)

Even as we inoculate our bodies and seemingly move out of the pandemic, psychologically we are still moving through it. We owe it to ourselves — and our coworkers — to make space for processing this individual and collective trauma.

A certain kind of guided, detailed writing can help us process what we’ve been through and assist us as we envision a path forward.

It can reduce stress, anxiety and depression; improve our sleep and performance, and bring us greater focus and clarity.

Why does a writing intervention work?

  • Narrating the story of a past negative event or an ongoing anxiety “frees up” cognitive resources.
  • Research suggests that trauma damages brain tissue, but that when people translate their emotional experience into words, they may be changing the way it is organised in the brain.
  • This matters, both personally and professionally.
  • We know the virus’ impact has varied physically, socially and economically.
  • Those who’ve suffered profoundly may not wish to chat about it casually with coworkers for fear that those who didn’t experience that level of loss and are now rushing to parties and vacations, can’t relate.
  • But what may be difficult to express out loud can be readily given voice through writing.
  • No matter what boat we’ve oared on this uneven sea, to avoid processing what we’ve been through is to minimise the impact of one of the most profound global crises of our lives.
  • Healing is essential to our collective wellness, and expressive writing has already proven itself to be a tool for enhancing well-being.

Writing that heals

  • Expressive writing is expansively defined as writing that helps us make sense of our thoughts and emotions.
  • Expressive writing can take myriad forms, including journaling, memoir, poetry, even opinion or thought pieces.
  • But what you write matters less than how. You must link feelings to events — on the page.
  • Such writing allows a person to tell a complete, complex, coherent story, with a beginning, middle, and end.
  • Such writing transforms the writer from a victim into something more powerful: a narrator with the power to observe.
  • When we write to express and make sense, we reclaim some measure of agency.

If you’re interested in trying out writing as a tool for healing, here are 3 practices, with prompts, to get you started:

1. Don’t hold back

This writing is for you first and foremost. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling. Don’t worry about what anyone else might think or whether it is well written or kind or fair. Set a timer for ten minutes, keep your hand moving, and “freewrite” in response to a specific prompt.

Prompt: Without overthinking it, write down words, notes, phrases, sentences — whatever bubbles up when you think about dramatic moments from your pandemic experience, moments that have stayed with you, pleasant or unpleasant. If you run out of things to say, write that until a new thought comes to mind.

2. No detail too small; no feeling too large

Delve into the details. To get to the feelings and truth of your experience, let your mind go to the detailed, specific moments. Power is in the details because they make it real for us.

Access what really happened by returning to even the small moments. The smallest detail brings out the largest truth or feeling. Make room for all of that, and capture your experience in its vastness and depth.

PromptThink of one object in your home that signifies a moment in this pandemic for you. See it in full color. Feel the weight of it. Use all your senses. Now, write about that object and see how large its meaning can become. 

3. Reach for revelation

As the world has altered around us, we’ve been altered, too. We may have learned about what matters, what doesn’t, or what gets us through. We may have learned about ourselves. Reach for those lessons as you write. Humans are meaning-making machines, and writing is a natural way to get there. 

PromptWhat is one thing you know now that you didn’t know before the pandemic? How did you learn it? When did your knowing change?

The only way out is through

  • When we use writing to lay bare our truths, we remain protagonists in our lives, rather than victims of circumstances beyond our control.
  • Expressive writing remains an accessible tool that can help us process loss.
  • Some pandemic traumas, the most obvious being the loss of loved ones, friends and colleagues, we will never “recover” from. Nor is recovery always the goal.
  • We write about painful experiences not to move past but to move through them without being destroyed.

Let’s not merely write our way out; let’s write our way into the new.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the article mentioned above are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of ICS Career GPS or its staff.)

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