Verbal ventilation is a term which has been taken from literature by Pete Walker – “complex PTSD from surviving to thriving“, 2013. Walker describes each of the four methods used in grieving from trauma as a recovery tool in great detail. I intend to further provide an overview of verbal ventilation for grieving trauma (both developmental and interpersonal abuse) and provide some strategies for achieving such recovery tactic.
Verbal ventilation concerns the writing or speaking of one’s trauma and emotions in order to fully release/reflect on the repressed painful feelings associated with such event(s). Primarily; speaking holds the greatest yield in terms of recovering from trauma – writing ones feelings and experiences can be an optimal way to begin to embark upon fully ventilating through speech.
By attaching meaning to words; an individual can begin to release pain associated with past trauma. When reflecting through written word, it switches one’s left brain to become functional allowing reduced right brain symptoms (hyper vigilance, racing thought, flashbacks, emotional avoidance/flashbacks, dissociation etc) and an ability to reflect appropriately on the event(s) concerned.
Determined practice of this method can result in a survivor of trauma having a newfound ability to begin to speak their pain and hear the emotional response in their own voice. This allows for further reflection and acceptance but should be worked towards. It is not an easy method to perfect, speaking ones pain can be difficult for many survivors of trauma as they have faced abusive behavioural conditioning in response to voicing their basic human rights. For survivors of Childhood developmental trauma who have in many cases developed in such a way that speaking without self judgement becomes incredibly difficult; using writing first in order to practice a form of verbal ventilation can be helpful when working towards having the self confidence and compassion required to voice that pain.
Adult interpersonal relationship trauma often results in similar conditioning with a survivor or victim being punished for speaking out, having an opinion and judged accordingly. Both examples are what differs PTSD from complex trauma and developmental trauma as both include deep brain changes (in volume/pathways) and complex interpersonal difficulties. However both survivors of developmental trauma and adult interpersonal relationship trauma can effectively work towards finding their voice through writing to reflect. An individual can use journaling, interview style question/answers and art and creative means in order to begin processing the pain associated with the past – and slowly working towards having an ability to verbally ventilate without judgement and fear.
As one begins to hear the words, meaning becomes attached in a new way; different from the written word previously used. When we speak about our past; the words become tinged in emotion and memory and can identify repressed feeling attached ultimately removing shame and guilt from a survivor with self blame and inner critic attacks.
Speaking in an uncensored manner without fear of judgement while simultaneously focusing on feelings or body sensations provides release of the emotion of the past. For some individuals beginning their journey or using verbal ventilation for the first time; emotional identification may not come so easily. As each trauma differs; each response differs – what one recovering individual is able to attain does not equate to the other. Trauma is a multidimensional illness which differs for each and every survivor. Those survivors who can not easily identify their emotions may benefit from working on emotional labeling and processing (either alone or alongside a trauma informed therapist).
Verbal ventilation provides the same release as anger (found here) the or crying (found here) but also helps to expose the critic driven attacks which become commonplace for a survivor. When a survivor is able to increasingly verbalise and communicate their needs they take a step closer to peace. These needs that were once unmet (and unjustly so) can be attained through appropriate verbal ventilation and recovery through grieving methods. Used in succession with anger and crying; verbal ventilation serves to propel an individual with regards to recovery.
Using verbal ventilation for recovery from trauma requires courage. When hearing those words that flow from a newly freed place within; they are individually tinted and descriptive, carrying alongside anger, guilt, fear, sadness and shame. That can turn in to a dark place where the survivor may lack emotional regulation to fight off the critic attacks that can blend sneakily in to what one believes to be verbally ventilating.
Using ventilation alongside crying and anger can propel recovery through grieving and help a trauma survivor to become free from previous emotional constraints. Regular practice of this method not only increases intimacy but actually helps to remediate the brain changes which are caused by CPTSD and developmental trauma (brain changes info can be found here)
During an emotional flashback, the right side of the brain (emotion) becomes overstimulated and hyperactive while the left side of the brain function reduces considerably leading to an inability to process the emotional reaction required at that time. Verbally ventilating brings the left brain back to function. With an acquired ability to think and feel simultaneously; words translate to feelings which can be processed and resolved. There is an increase in ones ability to interpretate and communicate not only with the self but with others.
The repeated pattern of using verbal ventilation for recovery allows the formation of new neural pathways which allows the left brain and right brain to finally balance and work together ultimately leading to an ability to reflect and recover.
Such results have been seen throughout research and theorists can now see these brain changes being present on an MRI following successful verbal ventilation and reflection.
The actual practice of verbal ventilation allows alignment of both the right an left hemisphere. Whenever the right side becomes activated (I.e flashbacks); the left side can provide steps to reduce and manage the reaction.
Proficiency of verbal ventilation leads to an ability to think and feel and ultimately creates appropriate healthy responses to inner feelings. Survivors practicing verbal ventilation have shown to begin to show their selves compassion and respect the – a core trait required in ones ability to appropriately label and react to emotions.
This type of grieving method is only effective when the critic (both inner and outer) has no control over the survivor. Using anger and sadness as a first step in recovering has been proven successful in reducing critic driven attacks. Work should be completed here prior to verbal ventilation so in order to reduce the risk of oversharing or to reduce the potential from a shift from healthy ventilation to critic driven attacks (which can easily blend in to attempts to ventilate).
Verbal ventilation easily turns in to self attacking, criticism, triggering or intensifies flashbacks. For these reasons; practice in verbal ventilation should be approached slowly and if possible with support (from a recovered spouse, friend or therapist). It is common for survivors of trauma to be unaware of this shift from ventilation to critic attacks. This may be due to the nature of trauma itself and how an individual may have been forced to develop over the course of their life and trauma.
Practiced alone, verbal ventilation can be helpful. There is no other person available to hear or judge the emotive words and memories held by a survivor and can be a great starting point in recovering from trauma through grieving. It is important to note that verbal ventilation should only be completed alone if the survivor is fully aware of critic attacks.
Support can be beneficial in helping a survivor to recognise and neutralise critic driven attacks, through repeated practice; this healthy response becomes formed in those new neural pathways and thus becomes second nature in which to practice.
Verbal ventilation heals trauma and abandonment by improving our connection to others. Sharing what is important to us through ventilation forges new healthy connections with others. Completed within a safe environment and relationship; humans have an instinctual desire for verbal-emotional intimacy. Doing so creates connection and friendship increasing one’s positive experience and fueling desire to repeat successfully.
Sharing itself can be triggering for a trauma survivor. A survivor of developmental trauma may have spent their entire childhood being taught that it is not beneficial to share or open up. In fact, many cases of both interpersonal abuse and childhood trauma impacts an individual’s ability to voice opinion never mind inner most feelings. In cases of trauma with no clear beginning, middle or end; difficulties arise with perception and interpersonal relationships. This can be the hardest hurdle to recovery however can be efficiently counteracted through group or individual support (or more preffered; from a trauma informed therapist).
Trauma survivors who have successfully terminated relationships with abusers often re enter toxic relationships and can over share as a coping mechanism to past trauma. This type of verbal ventilation is not effective in recovering from trauma through grieving. Oversharing causes vulnerability and actually harms relationships by not only providing others with fearful information but by causing others to question life and their own self in the process. When an individual over shares; they reduce the strength of their personal boundaries. Boundaries which are set in order to protect.once those boundaries become blurred; it becomes more likely that the individual in question will face further trauma from interpersonal relationships.
Verbal ventilation increases intimacy through bringing comfort and restoring connection between oneself and others. Sharing appropriately produces a bond through mutual sympathy and a desire to connect. This can aid a survivor in being more emotionally intimate with their partner or within common relationships.
Grieving through verbal ventilation also reduces the abandonment fears and depression associated with past trauma. Through cognitive work and practice of verbal ventilation techniques a survivor can not only build neural pathways but form new connections and experience further positive outcomes as a result.
Tips for ventilation
Start by writing – if you have never experienced verbal ventilation it can be beneficial to build a fundamental base through first writing ones experiences. Writing for ventilation includes journaling, writing poetry, creating song lyrics, writing personal memoirs and using an interview style structure in order to aid processing and reflection.
When writing it can be helpful to write without worry of spelling, punctuation or structure. Ventilation through writing concerns an individual writing everything and anything that comes to mind – no matter how insignificant it feels at the time. Worrying about one’s punctuation or structure is incredibly counterproductive and causes the left side brain to take over from feeling.
Music as a tool – a mediator step between writing and speaking emotions would be to use music to express how you feel. When reflecting on past abuse; assigning a particular music type to it can really aid a survivor in beginning to become used to hearing the sounds of emotions as a protective step prior to verbally ventilating.
Different genres may touch you in different ways. Try all genres of music until you find one that feels right. Whether that be classical, rock, dance, pop, piano, rain sounds or meditation – assigning meaning to music can be a productive tool especially during flashbacks.
Practice – using any of the four grieving tools as a recovery tool is not a quick process. Accept that such practices of recovery can take a while to adopt. Over time it can be helpful to reflect on the progress that you have made over your time grieving.
Reflection – write down or journal emotions and feelings for the day, it may be helpful to follow a script or pre written interview when reflecting. Journaling is an effective way to set small; attainable goals whilst tracking them as well as providing opportunities for self reflection, offloading of thoughts and allowing an alternative response to be explored. Journaling or reflecting can also be useful for a survivor of trauma when attempting to replace negative self talk and behaviour.
Replace negative with positive (the key is balance) – it can be common for a trauma survivor to become enmeshed with one’s negative inner critic.
The inner critic can manifest to one’s own personality and become enmeshed in ones identity making it difficult to separate. As life continues, the critic begins to take the driving seat in ones own reactions and perception. Fighting the critic reduces such attacks by substitution of thought (replacing negative self talk with positive) and thought correlation (when i revert to; “shut up!” I will instead ask for a break etc). Such reflection leads to an increased sense of personal likeability and desire for interpersonal boundaries.
Feel, accept, reflect – feel the emotion and label it, whatever it be it is important for recovery to fully accept that its ok to be feeling in this way. It can be helpful to remember our key phrase; “I feel – – – and because I choose to feel this way.” and repeat that until emotions return. Focusing on one’s breath can be beneficial in aiding the body to physically return to normal in the sense of its biological processes.
Work with support
Support gives a survivor a second set of eyes and opinion, in many cases support can be helpful in allowing a survivor of trauma to face difficulties with conflict (either self or relationship). Support from a trauma informed therapist can be important to work through the various issues which survivors of trauma face in their day to say life, providing validation and building confidence and ultimately helping build a strong foundation for which to recover. Many survivors may not feel comfortable using a therapist for support or may not be in the place to do so. Support can come in all forms, our group supports survivors by providing knowledge and information about our own trauma in order to help others feel less alone, online friendship can be beneficial for a survivor beginning their recovery journey as it removes the uncontrolled aspects of making and maintaining “real world” friendships.
Focus on the little things
Focusing on the small positives on one’s life can also aid a survivor in managing to balance anger appropriately. Reflecting on the reason behind the anger as well as balancing with reasons they are still OK in this moment can really cement a survivors recovery especially during difficult times.
This can be achieved by replacing negative self talk with more positive affirmations and balancing the in-the-moment anger that a survivor of trauma experiences. Practicing gratitude can be helpful in building these skills.
Build a positive circle
In this age of technology and at a time of lockdown restrictions and recommendations, a circle can be a small number of online relationships and friendship. There is no neccesity in meeting face to face, the goal primarily is to form a positive trusting circle with similar individuals of whom you can open up and reflect with. Reflecting in a group can propel recovery as the brain reacts to the opinions of one’s “pack” more intensely than individual thought.
Work on staying in the present
It is common for a survivor of trauma to over analyse the past in an effort to try to understand it. This is an important aspect of recovery however focusing on just one aspect leads to an imbalance and uneven recovery. Working on staying in the present not only helps an individual from basing present day decisions on past experience but gives a sense of freedom from past abuse. As the singular event(s) is over (and in some cases ongoing); the only fuel that can be given to it is that of a survivors own mind.
Although it is imperative to process the symptoms of trauma and at times the event that occured; it must not be forgotten to balance this with healthy expression in all forms. A balanced approach stops a misdirected recovery and helps a survivor of trauma to begin to live again.