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How to Snap Out of Traumatic Memories
I often blog about Rapid Resolution Therapy to treat trauma memories, and encourage readers wishing to resolve old issues quickly, or simply improve their lives, to learn more about it at http://www.rapidresolutiontherapy.com. In the meantime, try this practice next time you’re upset or don’t want to feel so emotional.
Some background: We often feel distress when we confuse actual events going on in the present with emotion-laden memories of events that are stored in our amygdala. Its job is to automatically warn us of incoming threats by being alert to situations and events which are similar to ones we’ve experienced as fearful and disturbing. Casting an ultra-wide net and using general criteria, it triggers a warning every time an event in the present comes close to being like a scary one from the past. The problem is that when the amygdala gets triggered, memories from previous painful situations flood through our mind and body, blocking out reality and inundating us with fear or distress. Although it’s an inefficient process which gives us far too many false positives, it has helped humans survive for nearly 200,000 years and it’s what we have to work with.
The way to pull ourselves out of such memories and re-anchor ourselves in the present is through our senses. By grounding ourselves sensorially, we shift our focus from the ghost of memory to the concreteness of now. Toward that end, when you get upset, ask yourself these four questions to bring yourself back to the present.
- What do I see? Break the spell of memory and look at reality around you. You’re
here and not stuck in a time warp. Call what you see by name. A client might say: “I see you, your brown chair, the woodsy picture over your desk, the ceiling fan.” What she sees is that there is no threat and, therefore, no need for alarm.
- What do I hear? Tune in to sounds around you. Don’t just settle for the first ones you
notice, but strain for background noises such as distant voices, cars driving by or the whir of an air-conditioner. If you don’t hear any threat, there isn’t one: You’re safe.
- What do I smell? To ground yourself in the present, sniff the air or take a deep
breath. You’ll be surprised what lingers in it: perfume, auto exhaust, perspiration, or cooking odors. You’re in no danger. All is well.
- What am I sensing through touch? Notice tactile sensations. Imagine being fastened
to the present and to the earth. Your feet are on the ground, you’re standing in a crowd, sitting in a chair or lying on a bed. What textures do you feel? Your body is fine, you’re safe and can relax. Time to call off the memory police.
The present is safer than scary memories, so mentally stay in the now to feel better.