Grade 6, school play, I’m sweating in my costume. I’m standing on stage, the lights are on me. There is a crowd of people watching and everyone is waiting but my mind is blank. The lines I’d practiced over and over again are gone, I’m frozen.
This memory comes back when I least expect it, while crossing the road and a car honks unexpectedly, heart pounding, sweating, I feel like everyone is staring at me. I feel like an idiot, having not seen the car, I’m embarrassed the same feeling I had while standing on that stage so long ago.
Whether it’s an embarrassing moment, a traumatic incident, a re-occurring nightmare, or a time in your life that you’d rather forget, memories have a way of sticking around and getting in the way of your daily life, sometimes interrupting sleep or just eroding self confidence. This post is about helping you to deal with, and hopefully lesson the intensity and frequency of intrusive memories.
I spoke about my EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing), training experience in a previous post (Processing Memories with EMDR). If you’ve ever heard of EMDR you might first think of eye movements (the ‘EM’ in EMDR) which have to be done with a trained therapist. But there are other strategies that I’ve been learning in my EMDR training which can be used by anyone. Some of these have to do with intrusive memories.
A starting place in addressing intrusive memories is to understand that our memories are multifaceted and that each facet can be addressed in order to lesson it’s intensity and impact on us. For example: We most often association some kind of visual image with memory. This is what might come to mind when we least are wanting it. But memories are often made up of more than images. Many memories include thoughts we have about ourselves and who we are. Troubling memories might carry a negative thought about ourselves. If we are attune to it, memories also often contain emotions. Sometimes these emotions are overwhelming and sometimes we have trouble accessing them. Strong, and particularly, intrusive memories almost always include some kind of body sensation. Some memories, particularly early childhood memories, don’t have any clear image associated with them. The memory might be primarily a physical sensation accompanied by emotion. This can be confusing if we cannot make sense of these feelings or place them clearly within our personal history.
Here are some ways to deal with the various parts of intrusive memories:
If you find that you have re-occuring images coming into your mind related to past events, or re-occuring nightmares with particular imagery related to that event, you can work towards altering that image by conjuring up the image on purpose, while awake. Then, try the following:
- Make the image black and white.
- Make it blurry.
- If’s it’s like a movie, make it into a still image.
- Zoom out and notice what else is happening in the picture.
- If there is a person in the image whose actions cause you distress, have them just stand still without acting.
- If the situation involved you as a child, imagine yourself as an adult in the picture.
If you have negative thoughts about yourself that accompany a memory or a reminder of an event, such as, “I always get it wrong,” or “I’m a failure” or “no body cares about me,” check in with yourself to see if you believe that to be true about you in every situation. Become your own defendant and gather evidence to the contrary. Talk to people who love you and have your best interests at heart and ask them for evidence to the contrary of your belief.
Consider what you would like to believe about yourself, something like, “I’m not a failure,” “I have known success,” or “I am loved.” Consider when you most believe these statements, who is with you? What are you doing? Can you do more of that or imagine being with the person who helps you feel this is true, if you can’t be with them all the time. These are ways to strengthen those positive self beliefs.
What emotions come up when you think of that memory? How would you care for someone who expressed those emotions to you? What would you say? What could you do for that person? Can you do that for yourself?
Also check out 8 Ways to Care for Strong Emotions
The important thing is to name emotions and not to judge or minimize them. Focus on caring for them.
With emotion come bodily sensations. Noticing where these these sensations are in the body and how they feel is a big part of caring for our emotions.
The following is called The Lightstream Technique that is tool used by many EMDR clinicians and is designed to help you notice and care for the body memory:
Start by paying attention to where you feel sensation in your body while thinking about the memory. Notice the shape of the feeling. What colour is it? Weight? Size? Texture (i.e. smooth, bumpy, spiky, etc.)? Is it moving or stable? Does it make a sound (i.e. low hum, high pitched, etc.)?
Now think of a colour that you associate with healing.
Imagine that colour of light coming in through the top of your head, gently flowing into you and directing itself at the shape in your body, penetrating and vibrating in and around it. As it does so, notice what happens to the colour, shape and size.
Repeat this last paragraph over and over until the shape disappears.
Then imagine that that coloured light is gently flowing in through the top of your head, down into your neck, along your arms and out your fingertips. Then imagine the light flowing in through the top of your head, down your neck, into the trunk of your body down through your torso, buttock and into your legs then through your feet and out of the ends of your toes.
If you continue to experience distressing intrusive memories, don’t hesitate to contact a therapist to help you work through it.
Also check out Nightmares as Signposts