Resources for Recovering Resilience: Handwriting Rewires the Brain

[I’ll be teaching the Coherent Narrative exercise below in 6 days of clinical trainings in Australia August 25-September 2, really a powerful tool in Healing Attachment Trauma by Rewiring the Brain.]

I grew up learning to print and write longhand decades before personal computers made editing and producing written documents faster and easier. To this day, my brain “thinks” better when I write in longhand. (As I did this post.) The developmental editor of my book, Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being, Shoshana Alexander, told me she could always tell which sections of the book I had written in longhand and which ones I had written on the computer.

In truth, I did write almost all of Bouncing Back’s 386 pages in longhand first, then did the editing on the computer. I could think more clearly, more creatively, through whatever circuity had long been established between the creative meandering of images and stories in the right hemisphere of my brain with the verbal wordsmithing of the left hemisphere, to my hand through where ideas flowed and framed themselves even in the moment of writing them.

So no surprise to me, then, to learn that because the brain processes experience differently when we’re remembering or imagining it from when we are talking to another person about it from when we are journaling about it, that journaling is a very effective tool for people to process and integrate the many experiences of a day-week-life, especially difficult experiences. According to researchers in post-traumatic growth (see The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth newsletter) journaling is an excellent way for people to get a little distance from the emotional turmoil of traumatizing events and come to terms with how those events fit into an overall life.

As the number of studies increased, it became clear that writing was a far more powerful tool for healing than anyone had ever imagined.
– James Pennebaker

[No surprise either that research provided in Victoria Dunckley’s Reset Your Child’s Brain shows:

Printing and cursive writing stimulate the brain and mind in unique ways that typing does not, including hand-eye coordination, self-discipline, attention to detail, and global engagement of thinking, language, and working memory areas. Studies show that laptop note-taking produces a more shallow understanding of the material compared to taking notes by hand; students using laptops to take notes don’t perform as well o exams compared to longhand note-takers.

So here’s a journaling exercise I teach more and more in resilience and post-traumatic growth trainings to help people integrate a new sense of themselves in response to a potentially or previously traumatizing event. There may be many steps of talking and sharing the events with others before using this journaling exercise, but I find handwriting one’s way through this exercise does rewire a person’s perspective on the trauma in ways that are safe, efficient, and effective.

COHERENT NARRATIVE

Set aside 20-30 minutes to focus on one specific difficult life experience you want to integrate into your sense of yourself as a competent, resilient person. Some difficult experience you have already come to terms with, already found your way through, ready to incorporate it as an important, even if difficult, part of your life story. Then thoughtfully answer each of the following questions, thinking the answers through in your mind first if you wish, but then writing down each answer in a journal.

This is what happened.

These were the consequences.

These were the resources, practices, tools and coping strategies I used at the time.

These are the resources, etc. I would use now if I could do this over.

These were the lessons I learned, the growth I experienced, the positive meanings I found.

This is how I re-entered the world and helped others.

This is what I appreciate about my self or my life now because of the event.

When you’ve completed the journaling, pause and reflect on what it was like for you to do this exercise. Were there any new understandings or insights from doing the journaling? Often there’s another layer of insight or revelation that comes through when you journal about what you’ve learned from a recovery process, and then what you’ve learned from the journaling.