Working the Trauma Out of Your Memory: A Way to Write or Talk About What Happened
Trigger warning. Thinking about or talking about the day or event that haunts you increases anxiety, agitation, fears, depression, and other difficult thoughts and feelings you have about what happened. Doing these exercises will mostly likely have that same effect. Before reading this blog, and especially before taking these steps, make sure that you are in a safe place to have those thoughts and feelings.
You are going to need all your strengths on board for this task. Choose the right time and place, when nothing and no one else requires your attention. Pace yourself. You choose where to start and how far to go. You can start and stop. Find a buddy who can support you without judgment or criticism. Commit to remaining substance free for several hours, ideally until the rush of emotions simmers down. Learn your limits. Call support hotlines if you find yourself overwhelmed. Reach out to a specialist in PTSD recovery. The Veteran Crisis line is (888) 206-0721.
Maybe it’s that day in Fallujah or the Helmand Province, or that flight deck chaos after an aircraft missed its landing, or that training exercise that turned deadly, or that barracks party that became sexual assault. That moment when you were confronted with a situation that put you on high alert, required more of you than you thought possible, that still challenges you to fight for sanity. That moment in time that’s frozen in time, that haunts you still.
How the f*** do I get rid of that?!?
Our natural instinct is to make ourselves stop thinking about the past, especially the bad past. We force the replay to stop, sometimes even yelling at ourselves and our inability to stop the intrusions. We think we can put that day behind us, but find that that day will not let us go. We let time go by. Still, trauma memory intrudes. That’s what it is going to do until you do something about it.
We make our lives manageable by limiting our activities and interactions. We learn what thoughts and situations activate this memory and avoid those things. We refuse to talk about what happened when loved ones ask. We become loners and say we like it that way. But we were never like that before trauma exposure. These are strategies that work for a while, but still, trauma memory intrudes.
What is it like to be haunted by our past? A lot of people have not experienced the kind of events that create trauma memory. To have trauma memory is unique to those who have been traumatized. When combat veterans or assault survivors say that you can’t possibly understand unless you’ve been there, I think this is what they mean. If you’ve never experienced trauma and the memories that intrude, you realistically have no clue what it means to feel out of control of whether trauma is going to affect you on a day to day basis.
Benefits of Journaling About Trauma
Journaling in a structured way about the time period around the trauma can be a helpful start. Here are three things you can consider. Far from a magical solution, these steps may, over time, reduce the intensity and frequency of trauma memory. We often require professional assistance or at least a buddy who will listen as we do what we can to put these memories to rest.
- Time stamping. Create a timeline, ideally on paper so it’s more real. The timeline for trauma events starts in the weeks before that trauma exposure, and ends in the weeks after. What were you doing before? How were you feeling about what was happening? Were you happy? Sad? Indifferent? Angry? Then, what happened, from start to finish. Especially focus on how you got out of there. How did that event end? How did you survive? What did you do next? Did you ever stop to debrief about what happened? Did you go to medical? Were you too busy or too troubled to do anything other than bottle it up? Best case scenario, working on putting that event into a timeline could (i.e., time stamping) could push your brain to develop long term memory. This is the kind of memory that starts to fade. The trauma memory could become less vivid and insistent. Worse case scenario, you could realize that you need the help of a skilled professional to facilitate this process, which is frankly often the case. Once we’re caught by that memory, it’s difficult for our brains to pull us out without a little help.
- Recognizing beneficial vs. harmful environment influences. If those weeks before and after the trauma event were beneficial to you, supportive or full of camaraderie, you could experience a quicker recovery from trauma memory. If those weeks were toxic or harmful in any way, you have to expand your timeline of what is troubling you. For instance, if you were on a base that was under attack on unrelenting missions outside the wire, there may be other factors at play that make what is troubling you more complex than at first glance. These require sorting out.
- Share your journaling, your timeline, with a trusted friend or loved one. For vets, we call that person your buddy back home. Someone who listens with curiosity and compassion. Someone who does not judge and does not rush toward problem solving. Someone who believes that you are strong and brave, and that you can get beyond PTSD.
That’s it. Sounds simple? It isn’t. It’s harder than anyone wants it to be. It takes longer than anyone wants it to take.
But the truth is … Getting better from PTSD is hard. Living with PTSD is harder.
How does that make you feel?