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Troubled by memories

After a distressing or traumatic experience, it’s normal to go over and over what happened and even to have dreams about it. If it gets too much, we might deliberately try to block it out and force ourselves to think about something else. This usually settles down within the first week or two. But if it keeps going and you don’t feel like you’re able to come to terms with what has happened you might have a problem with posttraumatic stress.

Do I have a problem with posttraumatic stress?

Most people who have experienced a traumatic event will be emotionally affected in some way. In the first days and weeks, you might experience strong feelings of fear, guilt or anger, feel jumpy, or have trouble sleeping.  People usually recover on their own and get back to their normal lives with the support of family and friends, but some will need professional help to recover.

There’s no firm rule about how long it should take to get over a traumatic experience. Recovery takes time - and how much time varies from person to person. But as a general guide, if you’re still struggling after a couple of weeks, it’s probably worth getting help.

If you’re troubled by nightmares or unwanted thoughts about the event, and trying hard to avoid any reminders, keep reading for more information about why you’re feeling this way, and what you can do about it.

Some people are not so troubled by memories but still concerned about how they’re coping after a traumatic experience. If you’re worried about feeling depressed or anxious, or how much you’re  drinking or using other drugs, click on the links to find out more about these other mental health concerns.

Why are these memories still haunting me?

An experience can be traumatic when your life or safety is directly threatened or when you see someone else being threatened, injured or killed - even if you've been trained for these situations.  After a trauma, your mind automatically tries to “process” or come to terms with what has happened.  It does this by thinking a lot about the traumatic event.  As you come to terms with what happened, the memory gradually fades.

However, you may have found your mind’s attempts to process the trauma far too stressful. As a result, you try to stop the processing by avoiding thinking about the trauma, and avoiding things that may remind you of it. The problem with avoidance though, is that if you do not allow your mind to process and come to terms with what happened, memories of what happened keep intruding. As you may have already discovered, no matter how hard you try to push away thoughts about the trauma, they can come back to haunt you through nightmares, or intrusive thoughts or images.

What can I do about it?

Self-help

If you’ve been through a traumatic event and are struggling with unwanted thoughts or memories, there are a few things you can do to get on the path to recovery. For some people, these strategies might be all that is needed. For others, they can be a useful addition to getting professional help.

Tell your story

You might be trying to forget about what happened and feel like talking about it will be way too painful. But actually, talking about your experience with someone you trust, or even just writing it down, can be really helpful. The more you do something, the easier it gets, and it’s the same with telling your story. Also, talking about your experience helps you to make sense of what happened and maybe see it from a different perspective. Even if you don’t remember all the details, say if you were knocked unconscious by an IED, you can still talk about the parts you do remember from before and after the blast. You can also talk about what you imagine happened in the parts you can’t remember (or what people have told you), and how you feel about not being able to remember. If you find talking about your experience extremely upsetting, or it’s been a long time since the event happened, it’s probably best to talk it through with a professional. Find out more about posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and its treatment.

Manage your anxiety

It can be helpful to use anxiety management strategies like breathing exercises or relaxation as part of your daily routine, to keep your anxiety under control. The High Res website and app has tools that can help you manage your anxiety such as Controlled Breathing and Progressive Muscle Relaxation.

Avoid avoiding

Because being reminded of the traumatic event can make you feel really anxious or upset, it often seems easier to avoid situations where you might be reminded of what happened. You might start making up excuses not to see your mates from the military, for example, because seeing them brings back too many bad memories. This might seem sensible, but avoiding reminders of your traumatic experience can actually make your distress worse. That’s because you don’t get the chance to get better at managing the feelings that come with reminders, and realise that even though the feelings are unpleasant, you can handle them.

Look after yourself

Try to eat well, get enough rest, exercise regularly, and avoid drinking too much or taking drugs. The Right Mix website and app can help you maintain a healthy balance between alcohol consumption, diet and exercise. The High Res website and app also has advice and tips for getting physically active and improving your sleep.



Getting Help

Self-help isn't for everyone. If you've tried the strategies above and things still aren't improving, or if you are having trouble coping day-to-day, it’s important to seek professional care.

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  • “When written in Chinese, the word crisis is composed of two characters. One represents danger, and the other represents opportunity."

    John F. Kennedy

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