Have you ever started a movie or a book and stopped partway through because it was just too upsetting? And have you then heard from someone else who said the ending lessened the earlier discomfort? Turns out you would have had a less upsetting experience if you had seen it through to the end, but you couldn’t have known that at the time.
There is a parallel experience that people sometimes have when they remember something bad that happened to them or a loved one. An intrusive memory charges in, out of nowhere, and suddenly you feel like your thoughts have been hijacked. You might then mentally turn away from it, squeeze your eyes shut and try to force it back out, or do something (possibly something unhealthy) to drown it out.
At times like this, you have more power than when you’re reading a book or watching a film: You already know how the story ends. Instead of stopping at the bad part, you can mentally hit Play or Fast Forward and go to the resolution–the point at which you became safe again. Here are some examples (and remember, this blog is not a substitute for individualized treatment):
- A client was referred to me for short-term crisis counseling after being robbed at gunpoint at work. Two days after the robbery, she was unable to sleep and saw the gunman every time she closed her eyes. I taught her to take control of that video in her head by letting it play, watching as he left without injuring her and she was safe once more. She reported that this was helpful and contributed to her being able to sleep again.
- Another client found she could not stop thinking about her son’s suicide. She had intrusive images of what the scene might have looked like as he made preparations, and her video stopped with an image of his dead body. She also reported that she had recently had a dream in which he was laughing and happy in what appeared to be another country. I suggested that she put those images together and make her own mental video of him traveling from his death site to this place of happiness. She did, and reported that it was greatly comforting to end the story this way.
When a terrifying or devastating memory invades your thoughts, it can be difficult to remember that it’s in the past and you are safe in the here-and-now. Finishing your mental movie can help you to put those thoughts in perspective.
This is just one technique a counselor might use to help you recover from a traumatic experience. If you are struggling with intrusive thoughts, I urge you to connect with a helping professional for individualized care.