Why You Should Write About Your Traumatic Experiences

On the day you find out that you (or a loved one) has been diagnosed with a serious illness, you walk down the street feeling like the world has changed. You see the smiling faces of people engaged in conversation, and you believe a wall has now been put up between you and them. You will never again be one of those carefree people enjoying a frivolous discussion with a friend.

And yet, if you could peer into the pasts of each of those happy people on the street, you would find a range of tragedies and obstacles. It just isn’t possible to get too far in life without being touched by divorce, illness, death, financial hardship or violence.

When we think about how we’d react to a diagnosis or when a diagnosis first happens, we cannot imagine life will ever have light, laughter and happiness in it again. As the psychologist Dan Gilbert points out, though, we don’t always take into account all the factors in life that influence our happiness on a day-to-day basis. As a result, we don’t always recognize the many ways those factors will lift us up, even in the saddest times.

When your life is affected on a daily basis by your own illness or that of a person close to you, that illness doesn’t define you, and it doesn’t determine every interaction you will have. When you interact with other people, there are moments of connection, of silliness and humor and contentment. In many ways, the fact of the illness becomes a background condition in life and the day-to-day moments are the ones that affect how you feel.

The Mighty’s stories are a wonderful example of the ways that the lives of people touched by illness are rich. These are not stories of people who occasionally transcend the pits of despair to feel fleeting moments of happiness. These are stories of people whose lives are happy, joyous and fulfilled. On those days when an illness in your life drags you down, these stories are great reminders that many days will be good days.

Of course, a diagnosis is still a shock, and that can be a traumatic experience. Lots of research suggests that these traumatic experiences are stressful and that stress can get in the way of healing.

If you’re feeling that stress, the research of my colleague Jamie Pennebaker suggests that you should write about it. Pennebaker’s research demonstrates that people who spend three days writing about the pain and difficulty of traumatic experiences have less stress later on than those who write about topics like time management.

The idea is that any traumatic event — like a chronic illness — tears at the fabric of your life story. Those disruptions of the narrative of your life cause you to think repeatedly about the problem you face. But these thoughts just cycle without end. Nothing gets resolved.

By writing about the trauma, though, you get it outside yourself. You start finding ways to weave the new information into the tapestry of your life. Over time, adding this information to your life story makes you less likely to engage in that cycle of thoughts. Ultimately, that lowers your stress.

So, don’t just read the stories here. Write your own. Whether you share them with anyone else or not, you are helping yourself to heal.

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