What to Do When You Can't Shake Off An Old Trauma

content_nathan-anderson-99542Have you ever had a bad memory stuck in your head on repeat, driving you crazy? Here's one way to shake it loose.

First, a short and not-too-traumatic story to get us going:

I had a small car accident recently, just a bump. An elderly man pulled forward out of his curbside parking place just as I was turning left into my home driveway, so our cars collided with a loud >crunch<. When we exchanged driver's licenses, he saw that I'm from the U.S., and he started shouting, "American! American!" He was very cross.

As it turns out, luckily, there were no scratches on either of our cars, but he was still scowling and stomping around on the pavement. I turned to his wife and asked, "Is he always this grumpy?" She replied gently, "We're on our way to the hospital to get his test results, and he's a bit worried." My attitude shifted immediately. "I'm sorry," I said, "I hope everything turns out well." We parted ways without needing to contact our insurance companies.

Facebook has a "Memories" feature that pops up photos from years ago, and you can re-share them if you wish. But sometimes you don't want to share them, right? Maybe you're not friends with that person any more, or he's since passed away, and re-living that memory actually brings you trauma. What to do?

I was just reading an article by Dr. Philip Zimbardo, author of The Time Cure, which conceives of our entire personal memory system as a slide show, like a Facebook or Instagram feed.

People who have post-traumatic stress disorder can see ONLY the bad slides. If you ask someone what happened in the year 2012, he'll reply, "Divorce!" as if that's the only thing that happened the entire year.

Do you ever get like that? I do!

One solution, according to Dr. Zimbardo, is to pad out the slide show with other memories, diluting the impact of the traumatic events.

photo by Nathan Anderson via Unsplash

Let's take my car accident, which I can't get out of my mind. If somebody asks me what's going on these days, I'd likely respond, "Xenophobia! I don't feel safe here anymore! An old man shouted at me for being American!"

Well, is that the full truth?

An older man, terribly frightened that his hospital test results were going to tell him that he's dying, accidentally drove his car into mine. His loving and caring wife, also worried about losing her husband, gently explained this to me. No damage was done to either of our cars. We left the scene within 15 minutes.

Am I unsafe? Are "people" attacking me for being a foreigner? Hardly.

What else happened that morning? I dropped my son off at school, we sang songs and made jokes in the car. I had three lovely clients lined up, I brought them messages from their angels. I had a lunch date with a dear friend, and she cheered me up. A lot of things happened that day.

If I can add in the other slides to the slide show, scrolling backwards and forwards until the whole sequence is more complete, I can diminish the impact of the ten seconds in which I felt (but wasn't really) "in danger."

Here are three ways to apply this to your own traumatic event - which could be MUCH more traumatic than my story. Maybe something really terrible DID happen to you, or maybe someone died. I am using a very small example from my history (there are much worse things, but I'll process those in my own time!):

1. Rewind your slide show to the traumatic event and edit it down to the worst ten seconds, but don't stay there.

2. Rewind back further to the hour before or the day before the traumatic event. What were you doing? Who was there? Were you OK? Try to take a mental photo of one, two, or three OK things going on.

3. Fast forward to a week or two after the traumatic event and recall scenes that are not directly related to the trauma (so, not the funeral after the death, but rather going to work, or having a birthday party, or just waking up and having breakfast).

Can you see that you survived, you're here to tell the tale, you're OK? The event itself was "not OK" but the context before and after show you that you're still alive and it hasn't completely crushed you. Life goes on.

If this process doesn't work (and it might or might not, it depends on how tough the trauma was), please seek trauma counseling, first by calling a crisis line (Lifeline is free (in South Africa 0861 322 322).

I wish you a full and vibrant slide show that includes but dilutes the trauma and shows you what a full and vibrant life you have.



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