How to write about difficult events without adding trauma.

When we experience an emotional event, we tend to replay it in our minds. Sometimes we want uncomfortable situations to disappear, so we try to ignore and suppress what happened.

But we don’t forget.

One way to manage intense feelings is to write about them.

When we dream or have a nightmare, we react as if it’s true . . . we perspire, our heart beats faster, our breathing becomes shallow. The same physical response can be felt when writing about a troubling incident.

We can’t change what happened, but we can change how we perceive it.

“When a writer keeps things inside, it becomes a ball of tangled yarn. As each story is told, the ball becomes untangled. Writing from memory can help us to let go of those stories we tell over and over again. We may not even need to tell them again [after writing about them].” — Patricia Hampl, I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourn in the Land of Memory

With writing, we can shift our perspective so the grief and hurt is manageable. We can then view what happened in a new light.

Tell your story so you can move on.

“The therapeutic process of writing goes something like this: We receive a shock or a blow or experience a trauma in our lives. In exploring it, examining it, and putting it into words, we stop seeing it as a random, unexplained event. We begin to understand the order behind appearances.” — Louise DeSalvo,  Writing as a Way of Healing

Sometimes it helps to write about something in order to understand it.

Learning to write about your past without it overwhelming you can be empowering.


  • The Freewrite Method of Writing
  • Guidelines
  • Have A Plan
  • Toolbox
  • Get Ready to Write
  • Visualization and Writing Prompt
  • Transition After Writing

The Freewrite Method of Writing

You can use a freewrite to explore your reaction to an unpleasant encounter.

A freewrite is writing spontaneously with no concerns about the outcome. Just putting down word after word, with no worries about spelling, punctuation, or how it will sound.

It’s writing without “thinking.”

Thinking is bringing the editor in and this isn’t the time for editing nor censoring. With a freewrite, it’s the process, not the product.

One way to start a freewrite is to use a prompt: A word, a phrase, a line from a book, or a line from poetry. You can also use a visual item as a prompt.

The challenge of freewrites is getting out of the way of yourself.

The joy of freewrites is making discoveries.

Freewrites are like very rough first drafts. It doesn’t matter what the writing is like . . . it can be fragments, or unrefined ideas, or mental doodling set in writing.

Let go of your worries and let your writing flow with no judging.

During a freewrite, immerse yourself in your writing. Choose a place and a time where you won’t be interrupted.

When you are writing in this free style, you are not creating something for an audience. You are giving yourself the gift of writing for yourself.

As you write, you might notice uneasiness, especially if you are recalling an unpleasant experience.

When you are feeling uncomfortable, you can either stop writing and come back to it later. Or, work through it.


When using a writing prompt, feel free to write whatever you want. You never have to stay with the prompt.

Follow your mind and write wherever it takes you.

Keep writing, don’t cross out, don’t erase . . . keep your pen moving.

If you get stuck, write: “What I really want to say.” And go from there.

If you know you are going to write about a difficult subject, have a plan before you start writing.

Have A Plan

The key to writing about troubling events is to manage emotions that emerge while writing.

Create a plan to take care of yourself while writing about challenging subjects.

Prepare a healthy snack before you begin to write.

Have a glass of water nearby.

If the writing brings up an emotional response, choose an item from your toolbox to relax your mind and relieve tension.


Repeat a calming word or phrase.

Breathe slowly and deeply.

Look away from your writing.

Focus on a favorite item or a special memento.

Walk around.

Look out a window.

Step outside.

Take a break for food, a refreshing cool drink, or a soothing hot drink.

Wash your hands with a special scented soap.

Notice where there is tension in your body. Put your hand there or mentally touch that place. Breathe into that tight spot. Write from that place.

“If we write about our pain, we heal gradually, instead of feeling powerless and confused, and we move to a position of wisdom and power.” — Louise DeSalvo, Writing as a Way of Healing

Get Ready to Write

Take a big, deep breath in. Hold for a few seconds. Exhale.

Stretch arms overhead and then stretch out to the sides. Let your arms drift into a relaxed position.

Roll your shoulders around. And then around the opposite direction.

Wiggle your toes. Rotate your ankles in circles.

Relax your legs. Let go of any tension in your legs.

Let your chair take the weight of your thighs.

Relax your stomach.

Sit comfortably in your chair, feeling firmly supported.

Rest your hands on top of your thighs, or on the table.

Take a deep breath in and as you exhale, release any tension that might be lingering.

Let go of your worries. Let go of your fears.

Have a writing prompt ready or use the prompt below.

Set a timer for 15-20 minutes.

Visualization and Writing Prompt

Go back in time to when you were 4 or 5 or 6 years old. See yourself at this age. Perhaps you can see a photo of yourself at this young age.

Travel up in time, starting with a memory of when you were 4 or 5 or 6.

Pause when you feel an energetic or physical response. You might feel a flutter in your stomach. Or a tightening in your jaw. You might feel a constricted throat.

You can put your hand on the place on your body where you feel energy or a physical response. If you can’t put your hand there, put your thoughts there.

Take a deep breath in. Hold for a moment. Let your breath out.

See yourself when you were twelve.

Take another deep breath in. Release. Let go.

See yourself at 16 or 18.

Remember when you were a young adult . . . early twenties . . . mid-twenties.

Scroll through your memories.

Choose a memory that produced a strong physical reaction. The reaction could be joy, pain, pleasure, or discomfort.

Think about what you were like before this incident occurred.

Then the incident happened and you weren’t the same after.

Drill down to the precise moment the episode happened. Look closely, like looking through a microscope.

See the details of where you were and who was there.

What happened?

Write about it now . . . Freely . . . with no concern about the outcome.

Transition After Writing

Shake out your hands.

Take a deep breath in. Hold for a moment. Release your breath.


Take a few minutes to transition from writing to being back in the room.

Move around.

Be in the here and now.

You are free to keep writing on the same subject until you feel finished with the topic.

I have been writing about my pivotal event that happened in 1963 for sixteen years. In 2020 I felt closure as I wrote and revised my story one last time, which you can read in The Write Spot: Writing as a Path to Healing.

Keep writing. It’s healthy, free, and freeing!

Life is sometimes a maze, sometimes a jigsaw puzzle. While writing you can explore paths to navigate the maze and find the pieces that fit together to form a balanced whole. — Marlene Cullen

Marlene Cullen is passionate about encouraging writers. Her series of books, The Write Spot anthologies, feature stories that entertain as well as offer inspiration for writers.

Marlene has been facilitating writing workshops since 2002. Participants often experience transformational changes in her “Healing Through Writing” workshops.

Marlene hosts The Write Spot Blog, a treasure chest of inspirational gems for writers.

Her awarding winning short stories and essays have been published in literary journals, anthologies, and newspapers, including Tiny Lights, Building Bridges, More Bridges, Redwood Writers anthologies, and The Write Spot anthologies.

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