After a distressing or traumatic experience, it’s normal to go over and over what happened and even to have troubling dreams about it. If it gets too much, you 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.  This usually means 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 it interferes with your ability to come to terms with what happened. 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 not feel like it but talking about your experience with someone you trust, or even just writing it down, can be 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 see it from a different perspective. Even if you don’t remember all the details, you can still talk about the parts you do remember. You can also talk about what you imagine happened in the parts you can’t remember (or what people told you about what happened), and how you feel about not being able to remember these details. 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 has tools such as Controlled Breathing and Progressive Muscle Relaxation that can help you manage your anxiety.

Take Action: Relax Your Body and Slow Your Breathing

Feeling constantly ‘on edge’ leads to muscle tension, fatigue, aches and pains.

The Progressive Muscle Relaxation tool will teach you how to tense and relax different muscle groups in your body. The Controlled Breathing tool teaches you how to slow your breathing rate. These tools will help you to feel calmer and release tension from your body.

These tools will take some practice to get the most out of them. When you’re starting out it’s best to practice one (or both!) of these tools once a day, when you are feeling pretty calm. Once you’ve learnt the skills you can use them when you feel anxious.

Both tools are available on the High Res app to use on the go. 

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 come to 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.

Take Action: Manage your drinking

Although drinking can make you feel better in the short term, in the long run, it makes you feel more anxious and makes it more difficult to deal with difficult memories.

Making a plan helps you to consider how you can start to cut down your drinking. Use the action plan tool and follow the prompts to identify and record the motivations, goals, strategies and supports that will help you to manage your drinking. Once you have a plan you can start to put your goals into action.

Make an action plan before you start making changes to give yourself the best chance of sticking to your goals.

You can also use the ON TRACK with The Right Mix app to manage your drinking.

Take Action: Improve Your Sleep

Troubling memories can disrupt your sleep, but there are some simple changes that you can make to help you to get the best possible sleep.

Use the Healthy Sleeping tool and answer the questions about your typical sleeping behaviours and get tailored advice and tips to improve your sleep and optimise mental and physical functioning.

This tool is also available on the High Res app to use on the go.

Take Action: Get Active

If you are being troubled by painful memories, physical activity can help you to reduce stress and anxiety.

Use the Physical Activities tool to find activities that you would like to do. Set goals for your physical activity and think about how to overcome anything that could get in your way.

Choose the activities that are the most appealing to you and are relatively easy to do. Once you’re in the habit of being active you can try some more challenging activities.

This tool is also available on the High Res app to use on the go. 

 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.