by Sara Pestana
Last Friday, August 14th 2020, we started the digital series “Mental Health & Human Trafficking”, a series of online webinars especially designed for the professionals working with survivors of human trafficking.
We invited specialists, from all around the world, to teach us about their work, techniques and experiences, to expand our knowledge and globalise our network! Our very first session was with the brilliant Silvia Gurrola Bonilla, about Expressive writing as a tool to overcome trauma from sexual trafficking.
Silvia is a gender-based violence (GBV) specialist with 20 years of experience leading and providing technical assistance to development programs in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, and Scandinavia. She has outstanding experience ensuring gender integration in the design, implementation, and evaluation of programs for marginalised groups (e.g. survivors of GBV, trafficking and forced disappearance, migrants, refugees, internally displaced persons, and ethnic minorities). She is the author of two pedagogical novels: La dignidad encarnada and El vínculo impensable. Both novels are based on true stories and aim to sensitise a wide array of readers on the origins of gender discrimination and human trafficking. Through her work, Silvia challenges dangerous gender stereotypes. In her second novel, she proposes expressive writing as a tool to help survivors overcome the trauma caused by sexual violence. As a survivor herself, Silvia started with a message to all the survivors of sexual violence:
“We can regain and rebuild our lives, and have them successful, happy and fulfilled!”
Is it possible to overcome the trauma from sexual violence?
Yes. It is absolutely possible!
There are two key factors to overcome trauma:
Building hope – We are not defined by our past, it is essential that we help survivors build a hope in a better, brighter future. They are so much more than survivors, we need to understand their needs and empower them with the right tools and skills to fulfil their wishes and help them accomplish their dreams. It is our job, as professionals who support survivors, to help them build their sense of identity beyond the negative labels society will so easily and rapidly give them.
Finding a purpose – The cultural and religious background of each person will affect and influence the way they perceive their own trauma and their own experiences. Finding a purpose on their pain will help them become more resilient. In the centre of Mexico, Silvia worked in an organisation helping vulnerable women working in factories or prisons, some of them were indigenous, and it was an extraordinary experience for her to confirm something she already knew, which is:
Writing can make the difference for someone.
Particularly if there is no other way or access to professional mental health professionals, which, unfortunately, is pretty much the case you will find all around the world.
So Expressive Writing can be a fantastic experience, and a great alternative for anyone that has no other choice or resource!
What is Expressive Writing?
This type of writing is meant to give you freedom of expression, to be spontaneous and it does not depend in any way of grammatical rules or if you have a good syntax.
This is about utilising a notebook or a piece of paper to write how you feel, something that you can revisit in the future or make a mantra is needed, or even throw away to give you closure. The only requirement you need to have is that you need to work with a population that knows how to write and read. Otherwise there is no other limitation. Anybody that knows how to write and read even if they are not elaborated, don’t worry, anyone who has 1st class would be able to use this tool.
Why a notebook and not computer?
It is proven that writing with your hand, you activate very important and key parts of your brain. Using advanced tools such as magnetic resonance imaging, researchers are finding that writing by hand is more than just a way to communicate. The practice can improve idea composition and expression and may aid fine motor-skill development.
Unless you have a physical limitation that forces you to type, then you should try to use paper and pen.
In the last 20 years the research has been showing the best practices and strategies on how to utilise expressive writing as a tool for self-therapy.
Those who start the regular habit of expressing their emotions and specially if they focus on emotional burdens, they will breath better, sleep better, be aware of healthy habits and enhance their immune system.
When you go back to anything you have written you will be able to compare and understand what you have moved away from, priorities that have changed. You can see where you were and where you are now, not only to see how you have improved, but also to understand if you actually want to go back to what you were or where you were at some point.
The benefits of Expressive Writing are undeniable,
but how can we do it and help others do it too?
Silvia has suggested several types of letters or texts that you can write using this technique:
Thank you letter – write a letter to anyone who has helped you or has been a resource in your life. Someone who gave something positive, hope, etc.
Give assurance – Write to yourself and assure either the time when the trauma happened, or something that is negative in the present and say all the positive things you can use on your favour. Anything that can be a resource, an update for that past version of you.
Remove the guilt – There is a lot of guilt in being a survivor and the society if very fast in putting the blame on the victims. So help them or yourself, remove the blame. Help them write their story and realise that it was not their fault. Even if everyone else says it was. You can seek for justice, but if there is nothing else you can do, forgiveness can help.
Forgive – forgive yourself. Forgive the people that failed you.
Write all the bad things that person has done to you and let go - Burn that paper, rip it apart, but chose to not let that person be in your dreams, in your decisions, in your fears.
Write a letter to convince yourself of how good you are - Go to a memory of a moment when you were successful, safe and wonderful. If you don’t find a moment like that, think of a person that has that, embody the feeling, own the feeling, and realise that you can bring it to your life.
Silvia introduced us to this incredible activity that, in just a few minutes, takes you to feel your emotions and identify what you need in this exact moment. It also makes you understand that you have the answers inside of you, just let yourself get in touch with yourself.
This is the type of exercise you can use to give assurance to someone that is afraid of writing. They are going to identify, within themselves, some response that will be more tailored to what they need than whatever the best therapist can say. No one can tell you what you need better than yourself.
No one knows more about us than ourselves.
Expressive writing has the ability to take that wisdom, and that tailored information and that knowledge that you have of yourself better than anyone in this planet.
We are extremely grateful for having the opportunity to learn so much from Silvia and taking this resource to our daily life.
We end with the note that many human trafficking victims are people that had already experienced some type of trauma that made them more vulnerable. We have all experienced difficult situations and challenges that had great impact on our lives, and we know that human trafficking happens everywhere and affects all types of people, so