10 Ways to Boost Trauma Therapy: 9. Therapeutic Journal Writing

Are you in therapy to recover from a bad experience, and wish you could see more progress faster? Well then, welcome to the ninth post of this blog series about different ways to boost the effectiveness of trauma therapy. I am interviewing professionals in the Boulder, CO area who provide services that can help you optimize your recovery from trauma.

For this installment, I spoke with Kate Thompson, an existential psychotherapist with a private practice in Boulder. Kate has written the book “Therapeutic Journal Writing: an introduction for professionals and co-edited books, “Expressive Writing in Counseling and Health Care”,  “Writing Routes” and “Writing Works.” Kate also offers workshops on using expressive writing, journaling, bibliotherapy and poetry. 

Brief Description of Therapeutic Journal Writing

Peg: How do you describe Therapeutic Journal Writing?

Kate: For me writing is a very important process. I use many therapeutic journal-writing techniques. What they all have in common is the 3-stage process that I recommend: 1. Writing. 2. Reading. 3. Reflecting in writing. So, I’ll first ask people to write something, which might be, for example, an unsent letter. And then I invite them to go back and read what they’ve written. The final step is an invitation to follow that with another piece of writing that begins, “When I read this I notice . . .”

Peg: Why this specific form? I mean, the first step seems obvious, but why then read what you’ve written, and write again about the process of reading it?

Kate: For some people, writing can be a way directly into the psyche. If it’s very dark or painful in there, they need to then have something to do with that. Catharsis is only the first stage. It needs to be followed by a period of reflection. Rereading, and then writing about the experience of reading, provides a way to start integrating what has initially been written.

Peg: And integrating traumatic experiences is so much of what trauma recovery is all about. Within this framework, then, what types of writing do you use?

Kate: There are so many types of writing that can be used. For trauma recovery, I suggest starting in the same way that we start in trauma therapy, which is not by talking about the trauma. It can take a long time to get to that point, even if you know there is something to work on and you know what it is. I think it is always useful to start by writing about the present. So the past experience will always be balanced by the present.

Peg: So you don’t have people sit down and write a story about what happened and how they feel and think about it. As a trauma therapist, I like that, because I know how triggering that could be.

Kate: No, you can start with any type of writing. For example, perhaps a list of some sort. For example, I might ask, “What feels safe now?” And then maybe the writing is simply a list of impressions or words or whatever comes. Writing about the experiences of the senses in the present is always grounding

Later, as they approach the trauma itself, they might start by writing about, “What feels safe in that period when the trauma happened?”

When that becomes comfortable, at a certain point, they might do something more directly about the trauma. There is a fabulous journaling technique using dialog, in which you get people to write from different parts of the self. So eventually a person might write a dialog between their present self and that younger self that experienced the trauma, and has had no voice since then.

Or another great technique is to write an unsent letter. Sometimes a letter can be written to a different part of the same person. For example, it can be very healing to write to the part that was the victim of the trauma. Or sometimes it is helpful to write an unsent letter to another person. I always teach that there are two rules of unsent letters. The first one, if you’re writing to another person, is that you never send it. Because it’s very tempting when you’ve got it all out there.

Peg: But knowing from the beginning that you’re not going to send it gives you the freedom to say the whole truth, without worrying about the other person. Otherwise I know I would hold back. 

Kate: That’s the other rule of unsent letters: promise yourself to be as open and honest as you can, whatever that looks like. However unpleasant that might be. Because some people will then say, “Oh, well I’m not an angry person.” Or “I’m not a mean person.” But there is a part of the self that needs to say those things.

Peg: We all have that inside ourselves, moments when our truth is something that might sound angry or mean.

Kate: Sometimes being able to write that can be very freeing. Some people really can write things before they can say them or even acknowledge them 

Peg: Do you find it necessary to set up a regular practice of writing, or writing for a particular length of time?

Kate: Oh no. When I’m in groups, we’ll often do some brief writing. People learn that even in three minutes, something can happen.

Peg: I tell myself that I don’t have time to journal. But then, I notice that I have time to sit and flick through Twitter for 5 or 10 minutes.

Kate: Yes. When someone says that to me, I’ll say, “Well, how much time have you got?” If I can demonstrate in a workshop that three minutes can create something of value, people are often amazed.

Perhaps another myth that people have, is that it should be done every day. Otherwise it doesn’t work. Which, of course, is not true. If you can only do 5 minutes, then do 5 minutes. It doesn’t have to be 30 minutes every day at 4:00 in the morning. (laughs)

Peg: I know from your books that you are pretty flexible about what you consider to be journal writing. I use the idea of lists with clients a lot. You can put a lot of things in a list form, and it takes the pressure off of having to write a story, because sometimes you don’t yet have a story.

Kate: Yes. It can be a list of people. Now there’s a great list to do: people who’ve been important to you in your life. Or lists of roles that someone plays. Or the parts of the self. I find myself enticing people into the writing, for example with a list, and then another bit, and then another bit. And each bit goes deeper and deeper.

How Did You Get Started With this Work

My core training is existential therapy. But my first degree was literature at Cambridge in the UK. And then I taught literature and language and things related to that. While doing that, I realized that some of my students were just not learning. It gradually dawned on me that some of them had immense trauma, and this was getting in their way. I thought, “Well now I have to go back to school and learn how to deal with it.” So I transitioned then from lecturing into counseling.

Peg: Yes, I would expect one’s writing voice would become mixed up in the trauma. And so much writing requires the ability to find your voice, to look deeply and speak truthfully.

Kate: That’s right. And reading is also hard when trauma has ruptured that ability to take in other narratives. One of the things I learned was that when people are traumatized, they’re not going to want to study. But I had the sense that writing could be really helpful and effective for them. Because I knew from my own experience -- I’d always kept a journal or a diary -- that writing was sometimes easier or felt more truthful than speaking.

At that time no one was using writing as a therapeutic medium. I started gradually, without much sense of how or why, to invite people to do some writing, as part of the therapeutic contract. And then I discovered the Therapeutic Writing Institute in Denver. I was very lucky because we came to Boulder in the summers from England. So I started doing some training there, and eventually I developed my own integration of existential therapy and writing.

Peg: Have you always been a journal writer yourself?

Kate: I have, really, ever since as a 7 year old I was given a little schoolgirl’s diary that would have room for maybe 3 words in each space. Then at a certain point, probably when I was about 14, I stopped using dated books. And started using exercise books, where you’re not punished if you miss a day. There’s something very punitive about those dated books, if you don’t fill it in every day. And then once you leave those behind, it helps if you’re a stationery junkie.

Peg: When you were studying literature, were you doing that with the idea of being a writer?

Kate: I wanted to be, but I never thought I could be. The disadvantages of doing a literature degree at Cambridge is that it’s made very clear to you that there are these “greats” and then there is you, and there is no in between. So your role is to read and appreciate the greats.  

Peg: There is some trauma in that message. What a way to take away the validity of your voice, and the idea that you yourself might have something to say!

Kate: The modern literature period started in 1830 and ended at about 1930. And then it was all over (laughs).

Peg: Is that part of why you then went into the counseling realm, because you were allowed to do it.

Kate: It was actually very hard for me when I started training, doing graduate school as a counselor, because then you were allowed to write. And, in fact, you had to write in the first person. I’d been trained that you keep yourself out of it and remain objective. It was really powerful to make that change, and it took a while and was quite a painful process.

Peg: But obviously lasting.

What is Therapeutic about Journal Writing?

Peg: I wonder if you can speak to what exactly is healing about journal writing.

Kate: I think it’s largely about having a really deep conversation with yourself. Really deeply listening to yourself. But also giving yourself permission and seeing that whatever you write is a part of you, and that’s it’s all good and acceptable. A number of clients have said to me, “I know I exist because I see myself there on the page.”

Peg: Yes, I also hear from clients, “I’m not sure I exist.” The people I work with have often had experiences in which they’ve been treated as if they are not human beings. They know that of course they exist, but they don’t always *feel* like they exist. What a beautiful way to work toward healing that rift.

Kate: Many people have had their voice taken away, because they may have told someone and not been believed. Or they may have been told not to ever tell anybody about their experience. Think about the way shame takes away someone’s voice. This is a way of being able to find that voice again, and reclaim that denied part of their voice.

Early on I worked with the refugee community in east London during the Balkan wars, with Bosnian women who had been systematically raped, who couldn’t speak. I found that, before they could speak, they could begin to write, just a few words at a time. 

Peg: Do you mean that you would have them write to themselves?

Kate: Yes. First they would write. Then they would write and have me read the writing while they looked away. As if saying, “Make it go away.” It was a long time before they could read it to me, and let their voice say their own words.

Peg: The sexual violence in Bosnia was designed specifically to humiliate and silence the whole community with horror and shame.

Kate: Yes, many of the women couldn’t speak of it or their families would reject them.  It was, literally, unspeakable.

If you think of trauma as a rupture of narrative, another benefit of writing is the restoring of the narrative. There was the traumatic event, and yet that’s not the end of the story. Because if you can write about it, you’re no longer trapped inside it, in a way. You can start to view it from a different perspective.

Peg: Yes, in my experience, part of the healing process is becoming able to tell a story about what happened, and draw some type of meaning from it. So then there is a new way to relate to the experience.

Kate: And you can do things like, you can get people to write in the third person instead of the first person. It creates a bit of distance. Speaking of “her” or “she”, as in, “This happened to her,” can help a person step outside of the trauma.

How to Get Started with Therapeutic Journaling

Peg: Where would you recommend people start with therapeutic journal writing to help heal from trauma? Do you think they need to have a therapist to do it?

Kate: If someone were going to approach this without a therapist, I would tell them to pay attention to what they can bear. I often suggest to people that they write for 10 minutes, and then stop. They can continue after that, but taking a break and assessing whether they’re ready to continue helps them take care of themselves in the process.  

Peg: What are some resources that you would recommend? Aside from doing therapy with you, which would, of course, be an amazing way to do this.

Kate: There are some really good books that provide ideas for getting started. Here are a few of my favorites:

·      The New Diary – Tristine Rainer

·      Writing as a Way of Healing – Louise de Salvo

·      Journal to the Self – Kathleen Adams

With a colleague, I sometimes also offer workshops on the Journal Ladder (created by Kay Adams), which is a very structured way to progress through therapeutic journal writing. It starts with exercises that use only sentence stems and lists, and it moves gradually all the way up to free writing. The ladder is very structured, and you move on to different exercises when you feel ready to move up the ladder. In journal therapy we end where most people begin – with freewriting.

Peg: That sounds interesting! I like the idea of having a structure around something that is really a pretty self-directed internal exploration. It seems like that would help contain and manage the process in a way that would be helpful when dealing with trauma.

Conclusions & Contact Info

Peg: Kate, thank you so much for talking to me. I feel like I’ve learned a lot that I can start using right away, and I’m definitely going to check out some of the resources you mentioned. 

For anyone who would like to reach out to Kate for more information or to explore working with her, please contact her through her private practice Kate Thompson Therapy. You can e-mail her at kate@katethompsontherapy.com

Was this interview helpful to you in your journey to heal or help others heal? Is there anyone else you would like me to interview, or additional information you’d like to see in these posts? Please add a comment below!