Healing Vicarious Trauma with Writing and Meditation

The most effective and quick way to heal is by changing our consciousness. Consciousness is our awareness and perception of ourselves and the world around us. It affects our moods and our actions. For example, if we are in an uplifted state of consciousness, we will feel joyful and engage in actions of love and compassion. Contrarily, if our consciousness is in a lower, debased state, we will feel depressed and discouraged, employing negative actions that can harm ourselves and others. Therefore, if we are suffering from negative emotions and feelings caused by vicarious trauma, it would be helpful to raise our consciousness to essentially transmute these negative symptoms into a positive state of health and well-being.

We can raise our consciousness and transmute negative symptoms of vicarious trauma into a positive state of wellness through meditation and introspection (journaling or expressive writing). The purpose of expressive writing and meditation, as taught in this workshop, is to expand our consciousness to a level of expansive peace, joy, calmness and love in which we can constantly live.

We can analyze our problems all we want by thinking about them, but this is unlikely to bring a sustainable solution. Thinking is limiting; writing and meditation are expansive. Expansion through writing and meditation will bring us real, lasting solutions for healing. In the process of raising our consciousness through writing and meditation, we will let go of negative and repressive feelings we have toward past events in our lives. Letting go will reawaken us to the freedom that is already present within us, and writing will give us a voice to reclaim our innate power.

We can use this model for healing from vicarious trauma using expressive writing combined with meditation:

Emotional experience —> Write and meditate —> Clarity and calmness of feeling —> —> Intuition and empowerment —> Healing and becoming your potential

Goals in Healing Vicarious Trauma with Writing and Meditation:

  • Realize that the trauma we are experiencing is not our own
  • Identify symptoms we are experiencing related to vicarious trauma
  • Link symptoms to sessions with clients to understand the specifics and bigger picture of how and why clients’ trauma is affecting our behavior, health, cognition, emotions and social sphere
  • Determine how we are practicing self-care and make an active plan to increase, if necessary

What is Expressive Writing and How Does It Heal Vicarious Trauma?

Expressive writing is a form of writing and therapy that raises our consciousness by giving us freedom and clarity through communication with ourselves. Communicating one-on-one with ourselves gives us intimate free-range to honestly and privately explore our deepest feeling and emotions. If we experience trauma first-hand, our traumatic memories are typically stored in bits and pieces in our memory as static events. Writing allows us to string these static events together in one fluid story, helping us understand the bigger picture of our trauma. Honest introspection and reflection brings us clarity, allowing us to process troubling memories that have restricted and repressed us.

Self-Care, Letting Go and Balance:

On the other hand, if we are experiencing vicarious trauma, our honesty when journaling helps us determine what symptoms we are suffering from and what we are doing in the realm of self-care. Again, such honesty gives us clarity, from which we can begin to make an active plan to change. Through writing, we can let go of disturbing images, spoken words and faces of fear that our clients have shared with us and that may haunt us. We can also release the overload of distressing details our clients share with us so that we are not also carrying them around with us, inhibiting our daily lives and our ability to give counseling and therapy. Vicarious trauma often occurs when we take on more trauma accounts than we are able to handle, and as a result, experience more trauma-related effects and symptoms than we are able to handle. Writing (and meditation) helps balance this excess by allowing us to see where we are taking on too much and how to actively plan to only take on what we can sensibly handle.

“Ah-Ha!” Moments: Realizing How and Why Vicarious Trauma Is Affecting Us

Additionally, we will have “ah-ha!” moments during journaling, where we will begin to see both specifics of what is truly bothering us and the bigger picture of how vicarious trauma is affecting our lives and why. For example, in regards to the specifics, we might suddenly or gradually begin to lose things or become uncharacteristically clumsy (behavioral symptoms of vicarious trauma) and not know why. If we are journaling about how we truly feel about our sessions with our sexual assault and domestic violence clients, then we will realize that these feelings have stayed with us outside the counseling center and are affecting our behavior by making us feel disconnected with ourselves since we are thinking about our clients’ trauma. Ah-ha!

Then we can begin to unpack the bigger picture of why these feelings are still with us — perhaps we are not realizing that these traumas are not our own because we are not practicing enough self-care, or maybe clients’ traumas have triggered unresolved personal memories for us. Sessions with clients can trigger emotions within us, born of compassion and related to our own past experiences. Writing expressively, not only about our work with clients, but also about our own lives, helps us process experiences allowing us to become more centered and less susceptible to vicarious trauma. If we are not doing enough self-care, then we can write about ways to increase this practice. If we are experiencing triggers, then we should seek trauma client help in the form of counseling and self-care (more meditation and expressive writing, but using techniques for trauma clients).

Writing and the Brain:

Expressive writing is an outlet that taps into the creative part of the brain that helps process trauma and balances emotions. When we write, there is a positive response from the amygdala, located in the temporal lobes on both sides of the brain, which plays the role of processing memory, decision-making and emotional reactions. The amygdala is part of the limbic system, which controls affective and motivated behaviors and certain forms of memory.

What Is Meditation and How Does It Heal Vicarious Trauma?

Meditation is an ancient practice that aims to bring the meditator clarity and self-awareness by achieving inner calmness. When we are calm and still, we make ourselves more able to connect with our highest self. Our highest self is our truest, most authentic self. It is our freest and most powerful self, free from the limits of ego and attachments. Meditation helps calm us so that we can recognize and let go of all limitations, and attune with our freedom within. Meditation inspires us to express this reawakened freedom in our daily thoughts and actions, ultimately cultivating self-transformation and empowerment.

Meditation and Compassion Fatigue or Burnout:

When counseling sexual assault and domestic violence victims, we are susceptible to personally feeling fear, pain and even terror, like they’ve experienced. We perceive this on a visceral level — our own bodies sense their fear, extreme anxiety, anger and other related feelings. Subsequently, we can end up making some of these feelings and experiences our own. Meditation makes us stronger, more resilient and centered within ourselves, so we are less susceptible to adopting these feelings. Moreover, it is not unlikely that we may experience compassion fatigue (a form of burnout) when working with this population. Meditation helps us be more centered with our emotions and live with more balance, avoiding overburdened hearts and minds.

Meditating before writing helps bring calmness, so we can write with more of a clear mind, so we can bring about lasting solutions and active plans to change when writing. Meditating after writing helps bring heightened emotions back to the calm, steady nature of our breath. Photo courtesy: P K Gupta VNS

Finally, meditation is key in helping us understand that the trauma we experience with clients is not our own. Meditation does this by bringing us calmness and clarity that help us connect with who we truly are. When we are calm, our self-awareness increases and we are more likely to see that clients’ traumas cause conditions that we are here to help, not conditions that we are meant to experience as our own.

How Is Meditation Combined With Writing to Heal Vicarious Trauma? 

In Writing to Heal + Meditation workshops and Writing and Consciousness classes, we meditate before and after writing. Meditating before writing helps us calm ourselves so we can think clearer. The calmer we are, the clearer we think. This way, we are writing from a place of relative calmness and centeredness, giving ourselves the opportunity to work out our problems from a higher, more aware state of mind. When we are finished writing, we usually either feel a sense of freedom form releasing so much that we had been holding on to, or we feel upset and agitated — which is completely normal (most people feel negative emotions, opposed to feeling free for at least the first few times they journal. It is likely that these upset emotions will arise less and less after writing over time). Meditating after writing helps balance our heightened emotions, bringing them back to the steadiness of the breath where they can transmute into centered emotions that are more in line with who we truly are. If we feel free and expansive after writing, we can meditate on that sense of freedom, allowing it to permeate every cell of our being and outward.