Journaling Tips for Survivors of Abuse and Trauma

Journaling Tips for Survivors of Abuse and Trauma

By Michelle, loveisrespect Advocate

If you talk with one of our advocates, they may recommend keeping a journal as part of your emotional safety plan, since journaling can help you clarify your thoughts and feelings, gain perspective on a situation, and solve problems more effectively. But what exactly is journaling? The truth is that journaling can look different for everyone, and with so many options, it can seem really overwhelming to even know where to start. There’s really no right or wrong way to go about keeping a journal, but here are a few strategies you can try if you need some ideas to get you going!

Keeping a Record

When many people think of journaling, they envision keeping a daily log of events, like a diary. This simple style of journaling can be effective for survivors who are trying to remember their version of events to combat gaslighting, or those trying to document their abuse or custody case. Writing about your day can help you keep a dated record of your experiences, so you can keep events straight and remember the details in case you need them later. Always keep your safety in mind when deciding whether or how to keep your journal. See the last section of this article for more tips on safer journaling.

Processing Trauma

Journaling can also be a safe way to process traumatic elements of your abuse that you aren’t yet ready to share with anyone else or even say out loud. While it can be tempting to bury and ignore painful memories, that is not a successful long-term strategy for most survivors. Translating thoughts into words changes how our brains think about things, so putting those memories to paper can be a safe way to begin working through them. Research shows that writing for 15 minutes a day for four consecutive days can have beneficial effects on our immune system, sleep patterns, anxiety and depression, and even arthritis! Try taking some time to write about what happened and how you’re feeling about everything. Don’t worry about it making sense or being grammatically correct, just commit to writing for a certain amount of time every day, and see where your thoughts take you.

We often hear from survivors that there is something they wish they could say to someone that they can’t—confronting their abuser, telling a loved one about the abuse, letting their ex know how they’re feeling after a breakup—and a journal can be a safe way to do that. Try writing a letter to that person in your journal, saying everything you wish you could tell them. You don’t need to send the letter or even show it to anyone, and sometimes destroying it by ripping it up into small pieces or safely burning it can feel cathartic.

Safety Planning

Your journal can also be a helpful tool when planning for your physical safety, either while staying with your partner or in preparation for leaving. In what ways are you currently unsafe? What obstacles are there to being safe? How can you plan around those challenges? If you are preparing to leave your partner, a journal can help you keep track of what steps are necessary to be able to leave safely, and how you are progressing with your preparation. Although a journal can be a helpful way to gather all of this information in one place, it also makes it easy for your partner to know your plans if they find your journal, so it will be essential for you to find a way to keep your journal safe and private if you utilize this method. Keep reading for more tips on safer journaling.

Bullet Journals

One type of journaling that has gained a lot of popularity recently is bullet journaling, which was originally designed as a sort of journal-planner hybrid, but has grown to become so much more than that. The original bullet journal system is pretty simple and minimalistic, and consists of listing your tasks for the day in bullet form. When you’re done with a task, you make the bullet into an X, if you will do it another day, you turn the bullet into a >, and if you have already scheduled it, you turn it into a <. There are other notations for events (o), notes (-), priority tasks (*), and inspiration (!). Bullet journals also incorporate monthly logs (kind of like a vertical calendar) and future logs, so you are able to plan ahead for longer term projects and goals.

Though the bullet journal system started off very simple, people all over the world have taken it and run with it, turning their bullet journals into something that is so much more than a planner, often incorporating art and inspiration into the design. The great thing about bullet journaling is that you can change it to meet your needs, and use as much or as little of the original system as you like. If you don’t like the style of the monthly log, draw your own calendar! If the symbols aren’t working for you, make up ones that do! Maybe you don’t need to be planning that far into the future, so you scrap the future log altogether. It’s completely up to you what you choose to include or create.

Your bullet journal can also be a great way to get creative, and many bullet journalers produce colorful and elaborate layouts, often referred to as spreads, to doodle or showcase their artistic talents. Creative hobbies can be a wonderful self-care behavior, so if artwork helps you relax, try incorporating it into your journal. If you aren’t the artistic type though, that’s totally fine—make your bullet journal whatever you need it to be.

Many bullet journals also have a focus on self-care, healthy habits, and inspiration. One popular bullet journal innovation is the habit tracker, which can allow you to keep track of any behaviors you are trying to focus on. There are a number of ways you can do this, but a simple method is to create a chart with numbered columns for each day of the month, and one row for each habit you are trying to track. For each day you are successful in sticking to that habit, you can color in the corresponding square, X it out, put a sticker on it, or any other way you want to keep track. When you are dealing with so much stress and trauma in your life, it can be easy to neglect basic habits such as eating, sleeping, and hygiene, so this tool can be especially helpful if you are trying to bring awareness to those things. A few days in a row of getting enough sleep and eating regularly can go a long way in improving your mood as well as overall health. You might also try a mood tracker as a way of checking in with yourself daily to foster more awareness of your feelings.

Journaling for Anxiety

Many of our chatters report issues around anxiety, and struggle to find healthy ways to cope with those feelings. One popular journaling strategy that could help if you find your mind racing is the “brain dump.” If you find your mind racing, try getting all those thoughts out of your head and onto paper as quickly as possible in bullet form, not taking any time to think too much or judge what you are writing. Writing down your thoughts can force your brain to bring them to completion, instead of circling around in your head or spiraling out to envision worst case scenarios. Seeing everything on paper may also make things seem more manageable, and allow you to start planning instead of worrying.

When you are in crisis, it can also be especially difficult to think of things you can do to support yourself. At a time when you’re feeling calmer, try making a list of people you can reach out to or activities you can engage in that will help you feel happier or more grounded. Keep your list or journal somewhere handy, so that you can easily reference it to choose some self-care when you need it most.

Positivity and Gratitude

If you are trying to bring more positivity into your life, there are several ways your journal could help you do that. Dealing with so many challenges can consume your attention, so taking a few minutes each day to write about one or two things you are grateful for can help bring awareness to the good things in your life that you may be overlooking. If something inspires you or makes you happy, take a moment and jot it down in your journal so you can look back on it later. Making a list of things you like about yourself or things you are good at can be a way of building up your self-esteem after it has been worn down by an abuser. Positive affirmations such as “I deserve respect,” “I love myself,” or “I am strong” can also be a way to reprogram your inner critic. Affirmations are most effective when they are tailored to you, so think of what you would need or want to hear during your lowest moments. Writing them in your journal and having them readily available to see or read out loud may be helpful when you are feeling too anxious or depressed to think of them on your own.

After Abuse

Journaling can be a really helpful tool for those who have gotten out of an abusive relationship and are struggling to move on or find closure. Taking the time to acknowledge your feelings and and explore them in a journal can help you figure out where you’re at in your healing process and decide what kind of life you want to create for yourself moving forward. Some helpful topics to explore might be:

-How are you feeling about everything now? Are there any ways you still feel unsafe or controlled by your partner? What will it take for you to feel totally safe?

-What does your support system look like? What kinds of things are you doing to take care of yourself as you’re healing?

-What are some things you are looking for in a future partner? What are some things you definitely want to watch out for or will not tolerate?

-What do you want your future to look like? What steps will it require to make that vision a reality?

Not only can exploring those topics in a journal help you understand how you’re doing now, but reading back on old entries can help you see how far you’ve come. For survivors looking for more on coping after abuse, check out It’s My Life Now: Starting Over After an Abusive Relationship or Domestic Violence, which includes writing prompts at the end of each chapter that you can use in your journal.

Journaling Safely

Always remember to keep your safety in mind when choosing how you will keep your journal. If your partner would destroy your journal or escalate the abuse if they found it, think about how you might keep your journal private. One option might be to email the entries to someone you trust each day, or to create a secret email account where you could store those messages. You might also try using an online, password-protected journal such as Penzu, which can be accessed on a computer or through a phone app. If you want to keep a physical journal, think about where you could hide it or how you might disguise it from your partner. Writing can be helpful even if you aren’t able to look back on what you’ve written, so the option is always available to you to destroy any evidence of what you write as a way of keeping yourself safe. You are the expert on your situation, so you know better than anyone what may or may not work best for you.

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