How to Cope with Difficult Memories, Part One.

In a previous post, I wrote about traumatic memories and talked about how psychologists have divided them into two types:

1) Flashbacks
2) Intrusive memories

Such memories can be very painful and emotionally distressing. Let’s look at strategies which we can implement to help manage our problem memories:

1) Flashbacks: strategies which are helpful in managing them:

There are three main ways which can help us to achieve this:

a) PLANNED AVOIDANCE
b) ‘GROUNDING’ TECHNIQUES (which act as DISTRACTORS)
c) THOROUGH REVIEW OF THE FLASHBACK (this technique is connected to the psychological technique known as DESENSITISATION – by repeatedly exposing oneself to the feared object, or, in this case, memory, gradually weakens its negative psychological impact)

PLANNED AVOIDANCE: this technique involves avoiding TRIGGERS that, by experience, we know trigger our traumatic memories. This can provide valuable ‘breathing space’ until we feel ready to try to process and make sense of our memories, usually with the help of a psychotherapist. In order to use this technique, it is necessary, of course, to, first, spend some time thinking about what our personal triggers are.

‘GROUNDING TECHNIQUES: this technique is based upon DISTRACTION; the rationale behind it is that it is impossible to focus on two different things at the same time. So, the idea of the technique is to strongly focus on something neutral, or, better still, something pleasant – the brain, when we do this, will be unable to focus on the memory which was giving rise to distress and emotional pain.

It does not really matter what we choose to focus on in order to distract us – it might even be, say, the chair in which we sit: what is its colour, its shape, its texture and feel to the touch, the material from which it is made…etc…etc..? I know this sounds rather silly, but, if we concentrate on it like this for a while, almost as if we were carrying out a forensic examination (think Poirot or Sherlock Holmes), it can act as a powerful, temporary distractor when we feel, potentially, we could be overwhelmed by our thoughts and memories.

We can implement the grounding technique by using what are known as ‘GROUNDING OBJECTS’ – this term refers to physical objects (ideally, easily transportable, so, a full sized model of, say, Stompy the Elephant, for instance, might not be such a great idea). But, seriously, it could be something as simple as a shell from the sea-side – it can really be anything, just so long as it evokes a feeling of safety and comfort. When feeling distressed, the object can be held and looked at with the intense focus referred to above in the description of the grounding technique. Also, as Proust helpfully pointed out, aromas can be very evocative – something relaxing such as lavender could be used.

As well as using grounding objects, we can also use what are known as ‘GROUNDING IMAGES’. This involves thinking of a place in which we feel safe, secure and comforted. It is a good idea to make the image as intense and detailed as possible (although people’s ability to visualize varies considerably – I’m hopeless at visualizing). If you are able to visualize it in such a way as to allow you to mentally interact with it (eg imagine walking around in the location you are imagining) so much the better. To get to the safe imaginary place in your mind, it is also useful to have what is known as a ‘LINKING IMAGE’; again, as this is an imaginary way of linking (getting) to the ‘location’ it can be anything; for example, when feeling distressed, you could imagine yourself ‘floating away’ to your ‘safe place’. Once mentally ‘located’ in the safe place, it is again helpful to imagine then ‘place’ as intensely as possible, using our old friend the GROUNDING TECHNIQUE, so that it almost feels you are really there, where NOTHING CAN HARM YOU.

It is also possible to employ the assistance of what are referred to as “GROUNDING PHRASES’. These can be very simple, such as “I am strong enough to deal with this, I always get through it’, or, even more simply, ‘I’m OK’. We can try to bring these phrases to mind and repeat them to ourselves when we are feeling distressed.

There is even a technique known as ‘GROUNDING POSITIONS’. This, very simply, refers to altering our body’s position to produce a psychological benefit; for some, this might be standing up straight with shoulders back to produce a feeling of greater confidence; for others it might be curling up in bed in embryo position to produce a feeling of greater safety and security. Such techniques, whilst, possibly, sounding vaguely silly, can be surprisingly effective.

I will continue looking at how we can help ourselves cope with difficult memories in part TWO, starting with ‘c’ above: a THOROUGH REVIEW OF FLASHBACKS.

Please leave a comment if you would like to – I will, of course, reply as soon as I can. New posts are added to this blog at least twice per week. Please follow this blog if you would like instant notification of every new post.

Best wishes, David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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