How to Stay Connected While Writing Your Trauma

If you enjoy understatements, here’s one: healing after trauma is hard work. I often find my lips have glued themselves shut when my therapist zeros in on the traumas most alive in me. I’d be terrible at poker.

But here’s the thing–I’m great at putting my head down and getting through. I am strong in multiple ways. When it comes to healing, I don’t give myself a break. We found the tip of the iceberg? Great. Let’s haul that whole sucker out of the water and chip it into slush in the next 45 minutes. Go! It’s a game of catch and release for me with transformation in-between. But sometimes, even with my therapist grounding me, I get lost in the process.


An aspect of trauma is it can make reality slippery. I have post-traumatic stress disorder from violence in my early years. It comes with periodic flashbacks and anxiety attacks. Both experiences are expressions of a disconnection from reality. While a flashback will end itself, an anxiety attack won’t.

Consider this: if you’ve ever panicked you know that you get lost in a possible outcome,  however likely or unlikely that outcome is. Maybe you’re standing on a bridge on a windy day and you start to think the wind will blow you over the edge. Maybe you are lying in bed at night and you are suddenly afraid there is a monster under the bed even though you checked before you got in and you know, rationally, that nothing is there. It doesn’t matter. You still have to work to calm yourself down.

In my trauma writing classes and as a writing coach, I invite participants to access their trauma and transform it on the page. The first step is saying, “Yes. This happened to me.” Even though people come to me with that as their goal, it is fucking terrifying.

It’s easy to get lost during step one, so I have a whole toolbox full of tools designed for the trauma writer. It includes relief projects and objects, writing prompts geared toward grounding, reminders that writers are safe where they are right now, breath work and the mantra for every trauma session I teach:


I repeat it at intervals. I keep it written on a notecard and prop it up during classes. I send it in emails. I shout it at myself when I am alone with my computer and I find myself in tears and shaking, my body numb and cold and my seat seemingly disappeared out from under me. Panic is not a joke. Fear is not a joke. But neither of them define or own me. I own them. I am not my work.

I am not the words I write.

I am not the experiences I’ve had.

I am not even the body that was hurt.

I am not what I was told I would be. I am a success.

I am more than what I was said I could be. I am more than my anatomy. I am a friend, lover, mother, mentor, writer, teacher and WHO I CHOOSE TO BE.

Trauma is my work, but I am not my work.

If you find yourself panicking, no matter your situation, remember that the disconnection does not define you. You are not this moment. WE are not this moment. We are more complicated, more capable, more beautiful than any aspect of ourselves being expressed in this moment and any we may choose to put on the page. We are not our work.

Do you have a mantra? I would love to know yours.

Shawna Ayoub

Shawna Ayoub is an essayist, fiction writer, poet and instructor with an MFA in creative writing from Indiana University. Some of her work has been published in The Manifest-Station, Role Reboot, [wherever], The Huffington Post, The Oxford Review and Exit 7. Her writing explores the intersections of race, place and survivorship. She writes with honesty about her own experience in order to transform pain.

19 Discussion to this post

  1. OH MY MOTHERDICK is my my Mantra, all caps because I am screaming it

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  2. Shelah says:

    Shawna, thanks for sharing your story and insights. I admire your courage to delve deep and dig out those glaciers! 🙂 I also love your affirmations for keeping it all in perspective. I too am a big fan of affirmations for staying grounded in reality when panic/anxiety etc. try to run the show! 🙂 XO Shelah

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  3. Ula says:

    Sometimes I say simple things like:
    just be,
    let it go, or
    you are enough.
    Usually, I don’t use words though. I concentrate on my heart space and feel the light and warmth there. I can feel higher power there, and when I go there I am immediately reminded why I am here and what I have been called to do.
    The most powerful realization I had in my healing process has been that I am not my story, my past is JUST a story, and that memories have the same power as dreams, so I can choose and pick what stories I identify with.

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    • Ula, That is beautiful. I have learned so much through meditation. I struggle to tune into my body even though I lead a class writing meditation to that end. The stories we hold in our selves . . . But they ARE just stories, and we DO get to choose. What you are saying is precisely what got me from stuck in trauma to recognizing the value I can carry from it. Thank you.

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  4. Angie Mc says:

    Do what love requires <- while I have others, this one has worked consistently for me for years. As for panic attack, dang it! Mine have been lessening in frequency for some time, only to rear it's ugly head recently. Thank goodness for coping skills and people who love me. Great post, Shawna.

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  5. roweeee says:

    I have limitations from chronic health and disability issues and my mantra is to “find a way”. If I can’t do something the more conventional way, find a lateral alternative. xx Rowena

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  6. […] How to Stay Connected While Writing Your Trauma by Shawna Ayoub Ainslie […]

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  7. Michael T Heath says:

    Shawna Ayoub Ainslie braves the scary path of personal trauma – aiding other trauma survivors (frankly, who isn’t one?) in the healthy unburdening of terrible life events. “I am not my writing” she declares, flying in the face of convention. She’s asked for our own mantras, perhaps gleaning more wisdom for future healing efforts. Mine is tinged with bitterness unearned: “Life sucks, but then we get to die” – a riff on my formerly Catholic self.
    Keep up the encouraging work. It is a kindness unearned, yet so needed in this world.

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  8. How ever did I miss this before? It’s perfection. Sharing in our workshop, and recommending our memoir writers follow you, learn from you, come to love you as I do. xo

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  9. Reblogged this on Kim Jorgensen Gane and commented:
    Shawna teaches a class, Writing Through Trauma. I wish so much that I lived closer, I would take her class and recommend it to our #Write2TheEnd participants. So many of these roadblocks are the very ones we give the power to block us from getting to our The End. Follow Shawna. Come to love her as I do.

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