The world and life is filled with experiences. Some of them are good and some are very negative. At the end of the day, looking back, life has most likely been about an equal share of each. It is what we do with these experiences that make up who we are and how we feel. Here are some key areas to focus on while managing stress related to traumatic memories and experiences.
It is amazing what scientists have to say about the way that the mind processes memory. It has become apparent that the way we remember our past is highly affected by the way we perceive that event. That may sound like saying the same thing two different ways, but it is not.
There was an experiment test the way that memory was processed. It involved several people that had two months of their life recorded by a camera crew. After the event, they were questioned about a few events and their memories were very different from reality.
Applying the Data
It may seem that this has nothing to do with dealing with traumatic events, but there is a direct correlation. In the experiment, it was found that people would populate their happy memories with things like sunshine that did not exist, music that was never there and a variety of other things.
The same was true for their negative memories, but in the opposite manner. The weather was darkened, rooms were more confining and things of this nature were “remembered” and the reality was nowhere near the way that the people described.
One final piece of important information was discovered. The more and more that a person would run through an experience in their mind, the more pronounced the deviation from reality would get. After several times, a person describing a negative past event would be transformed from a mildly negative event into a horrid affair and lights and shadows.
Making this work in life
Dealing with trauma and traumatic events can be very hard. Keeping everything in perspective can be near impossible. There are several things that can make it easier and several things that can be very harmful.
Once past the initial trauma it is time to start putting the event into perspective. The first step is to not run from the pain in the beginning. This will cause a person to push all that pain deep inside and it will find its way to the surface in the future. Allow yourself to feel every emotion. Try to use medication, if prescribed, lightly and never go beyond the instructions.
At the same time, set a time limit to your suffering. This is not something that should appear to be a “command” to yourself, but a limit to how much pain you are going to let the event cause you. The amount of time should vary depending on the event. Speak to the event as if it was another person and say it aloud. Tell the event that it is only allowed to cause you “two weeks of pain” or whatever time is appropriate.
Even after the time limit, do not push the feelings away as if it were a battle. There will be times years down the road when that same feeling hits your stomach. There is no way to tell someone that has never been through drama what it is like, but it can be quick and intense. Buddhists that are learning to meditate are not told to fight their thoughts, but to identify them and move on.
When a bout of pain comes, do not repress it, simply identify that you have had a painful moment and tell it to pass. Take a deep breath and find something else to do. Think of the pain as a small puppy trying to get your attention at the wrong time. You wouldn’t kick the puppy away. Simply look down, tell the puppy you see them and move on.
Keep a journal and read it often. Do not go into detail about the event, but rather talk about how hard it is to deal with the feelings. You may find that a day that seems horrible is actually very easy compared to the way you felt right after the event.
This is the hardest part of all and can take years. If there was another person involved, a person that hurt you, they exercised a certain amount of power over you at the time of the event. There was nothing at that time that you could do and there is no changing the past.
However, every time that you allow them to cause you pain through your memories you are giving them power over your present life. The only way to deal with that is to forgive them. This can take years, but it makes you a better person than them and it takes real courage.
If the event was a criminal event or even if it was not, there is no need to involve the other person. Write them a letter. State exactly what happened and how you felt at the time. Take all of your negative energy and put it right into the pen and paper. Write it by hand, not on a computer. Invest every bit of anger and pain into the effort and at the end of the letter, forgive them.
This takes that power that they continue to exercise over you and dispels it. Find a safe and quiet place and burn the letter. As you watch the smoke rise, let it take your pain with it. When those memories creep up in the future, remember the letter and let you pain flow away.
It may sound cliché, but the negative events of life make the good things all that much better. It is the good and the bad that give life texture. There will be pain, but that pain will give way to greater peace as time goes by. Be safe and remember that time puts everything in perspective.
Kathryn Maguire is business and career blogger for organizations such as PRA, providing professional training programs such as Policy Research Associates trauma awareness training.