WRITING LIFE: Support Yourself as You Write About Trauma by Joy von Steiger

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Trauma shattered my sense of wholeness and coherence. It made me alien to myself, and I imagined to others. I had only snapshots to go on, like an old movie reel that got stuck, stuttered and jumped to the end.

Writing about trauma has the power to heal us and be a beacon for others. We can create art from ashes when we offer ourselves compassion, care, containment, and love.

Writing saved me. I write to feel more fully human, to be witnessed, and to remind myself I matter.

I write what I know and let myself move into what I don’t, writing into the voids and finding what fills the empty spaces. My first drafts often offer me new pieces of memory or feelings I use to deepen my personal recovery work. The more I revise, the more a piece takes shape as a living memorial emblematic of power and mastery.  Self-care, identifying when I am overwhelmed or need a break, coping strategies, and containment have all been important parts of my process.

How to Practice Self-Care

Writing about painful material can be emotionally overwhelming. Self-care that engages both the mind and the body can teach your nervous system and emotional brain to distinguish a rested, calm state from an activated, overwhelmed state.

Make time for passion, joy, and comfort. Dig in the dirt, watch a sunset, dance, or cook a delicious meal. Release some oxytocin, our feel-good hormone, with the touch of a loved one, a cuddle, a hug, or a bit of exercise. You can find me in my backyard elbow deep in dirt with my dog next to me, digging up everything I plant.

I may do revisions on days that I am short on sleep and save my generative writing for days when I am well rested. My writing process extends to the activities I do to support myself emotionally and physically, build resilience and connect with my power and sense of control. Yoga and meditation help me feel calm in my body, a state that I can recreate later with a yoga breath or meditative deep breathing. I walk every day, bike when I can, eat well and drink plenty of water. I know that I am substantially more resilient when I have slept 8 hours.

My partner, friends, and other writers, particularly writer friends who have a deep understanding of trauma, offer a cushion of emotional safety that grounds me. My people remind me I have survived, and I am loved.

What to Do If You Are Triggered

When we write about trauma, we sometimes lose our distance from the material. Our sympathetic nervous system reacts as though the threat is a present day threat. It responds to perceived or actual danger with an adaptive fight, flight, or freeze response, which tells us when we are in physical or emotional danger.

If I am overwhelmed or triggered by my writing, my fight/flight response is rapid breathing, clenching jaw, and tight muscles. My freeze response is dissociating or taking a nap. Think about what you can do to ground yourself. What settles you, clears your head, makes you feel safe? Rank your choices so you can run through them if one doesn’t work.

When I am triggered, I rub a stone my partner gave me, drink water, step outside for some air or go for a walk. Sometimes I need to end my writing for the day to take care of myself and settle my nervous system.

Create a Container for Trauma

In my trauma work with clients, we create containers for difficult memories and feelings that come up in session or out in the world. The container holds feelings or memories we can pick back up later. Our notebooks or computers can be the containers that, once closed, hold and protect our most difficult experiences. I mark the opening and closing of my container, my computer, with a ritual that signals my heart and mind that I am beginning or ending my writing. I bracket writing time with breathing, a walk, snuggles with my labradoodle, Lily, or stepping outside into my garden. I write in the same place, at my kitchen table, infused with light and surrounded by plants, a water bottle, and a rock with a hand-drawn heart my partner made me.

I hope as you write, you offer yourself compassion, care, containment, and love. I wish for your journey to bring you deep healing and beautiful prose.


Meet the Contributor

Joy von Steiger is a mother, psychologist, writer and survivor. Her professional training helped her to understand the challenges she faces writing about trauma. Joy’s work has appeared in Pangyrus  and Cognoscenti. An essay is forthcoming in Solstice Literary Magazine. She lives in Cambridge with her son and her dog, Lily.

  4 comments for “WRITING LIFE: Support Yourself as You Write About Trauma by Joy von Steiger

  1. I love your description of the why and how of your memoir writing. “I write what I know and let myself move into what I don’t,” I wrote about my father’s tragic accident–or had to–as a way to order the chaos in my brain. Trying to claim structure to an unfathomable event brought a semblance of control. It took me several months to get through the piece published in Hippocampus (2017). Since then, I’ve explored more threads in the tangled web of trauma, each leading me to the place I need to go next.

    • Evelyn- I just read your essay! What a beautiful tribute to you father and vivid description of fear! It’s so beautifully written! Thank you!

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