In the last post we talked about four ways traumatic memories differ from regular memories, and in this post we’ll cover four ways you can work with those memories in the present moment so that they don’t bother you so much.
So here’s the thing about trauma: even though the event happened in the past, we work with trauma in the present moment. It causes pain in the present moment. It changes your nervous system in the present moment. The hurt isn’t just in the past; it’s right here. It’s in your body. It’s in your emotions.
When traumatic memories are integrated and consolidated, real healing can happen. This might look like someone being able to say, “This terrible thing happened to me, but right now I am safe.” And when they remember the event, they can calm their mind and body in the present moment. The memory becomes a memory instead of a flashback where they’re re-experiencing a terrible event as if it’s happening again and again.
Now, as we talked about in the last post, traumatic memories differ from regular memories in four ways.
Number one: they don’t naturally soften over time; they stay intense and vivid.
Number two is traumatic memories are often sensory. It feels like the event in sight and sounds and smells.
Number three: the passage of time is distorted. It feels like you’re living it over it and over again in the present moment.
And number four is that they’re often fragmented. They don’t follow a sequential order. Some information may be missing or blocked.
Now, putting memories into words or something more solid can help people make peace with those memories and gain more clarity about them, and therapy can be a great place to do this. But also, in my opinion, we all have an inherent ability to heal, and if we work within a few principles there’s a lot we can do on our own.
5 Principles for Working Through Traumatic Memories
So here’s a couple principles that I think can help anyone learn to work through traumatic memories.
1. Stay in Your Window of Tolerance
The first is just do small doses at a time so that you don’t get overwhelmed and flooded and re-traumatized. This is called staying in the window of tolerance. So avoidance keeps you trapped in traumatic memories, but so does re-traumatizing yourself by jumping in too fast or too deep.
It’s kind of like when you learn to swim. You start in the shallow end with an instructor or with some other resource, like a life jacket, and then you gradually learn the skills to move deeper on your own.
2. Be Gentle and Compassionate
Next, be gentle and compassionate with yourself as you work through these memories. It’s common for survivors to put themselves down, to think that they’re stupid or they’re weak for struggling, and it’s also really common to compare yourself with others.
You might say something like, “He went through the same thing, and he’s fine” or “What I went through wasn’t as bad as what she went through,” etc. etc. And you just can’t heal by hating yourself. You can only heal by restoring a sense of safety, and that means you’ve got to be safe toward yourself too.
So in the trauma groups I’ve worked with, we’ve had a rule: you are not allowed to compare yourself to other people. You’re not allowed to compare your trauma to other people. It’s just not helpful.
3. Get Support
Number three: get a lot of support. Not only can therapists, friends, and family members help us when we’re struggling and give us someone to talk to, but their nervous systems literally help to soothe our nervous systems.
When we’re working through trauma, being with a compassionate, supportive person can help you reprocess trauma from the ventral vagal state. This is the safe and social state of the nervous system, where learning and healing happen.
Eye contact, hugs, a soothing voice — these all communicate to your nervous system that you’re safe now, and they create a space to work through these painful memories and to reprocess them as being in the present moment.
4. Take Breaks
Next, learn to take breaks. Find really good coping skills so that you can rest and recover between moments of processing.
Now, if you don’t know how to do self-care or if you’d like to learn a ton of options for coping skills, check out my course Coping Skills and Self-Care. You can develop your own personalized plan for coping with intense emotions and taking breaks so that you can recover.
5. Make the Implicit Explicit
Another principle for working through traumatic memories that therapists talk about all the time is to make the implicit explicit.
This means to take the fuzzy, vague, unclear, or unexplored parts of your memories and explore them. Give them words, give them colors, name them, say them out loud, draw them. Anything you can do to take something from vague to clear will give you more power to resolve the feelings that are connected with them.
By making cloudy thoughts concrete you’ll be able to handle them, and they won’t keep hurting you so much.
4 Treatments for Working Through Traumatic Memories
So now let’s talk about four treatments that have been shown to help process and heal traumatic memories. All of these treatments have one thing in common: they seek to help survivors retrieve a memory when they’re feeling safe.
If you recall traumatic memories when you don’t have the resources to manage the stress response, this can be overwhelming, and then the memory gets restored as traumatic. Going back to the swimming analogy, this is like jumping into the deep end without any help and you don’t know how to swim.
So if you don’t know how to swim but you have to jump into the deep end, there’s two things that can help you: the first one is an external resource. So this would be something like a life jacket or a swim instructor who’s helping hold you up. And the second thing that can help you in swimming would be learning the skills to swim. And this is an internal resource.
And you for sure need the external resources in the beginning, and then eventually you can learn the skills to process painful memories independently.
Now, just like swimming, with processing traumatic memories you for sure need external resources in the beginning. You need someone to help you regulate your system as you work through these painful memories, and then eventually you can learn the skills to process through painful memories more independently.
So this is why it’s so essential to work with a skilled professional in the beginning stages of trauma therapy. They’ll help you build up skills like grounding skills and nervous system regulation to handle the bodily sensations that may come with these memories. And then this sense of safety can help you retrieve a memory and then process it in a safe context and then store it differently, and that’s going to decrease its intensity.
1. Talk or Write About It in a Safe Place
Now, if you can’t access working with a therapist, there are some ways to work through these memories on your own. It always helps to talk about them with a safe friend, a family member, a religious figure, or a counselor, but even something like journaling can help you work through painful memories.
You can also choose a safe environment to do this work, like petting your favorite animal or sitting on the beach and watching the ocean.
But processing memories without a therapist comes with the risk of getting overwhelmed or triggered by these intense memories, so whenever possible work with a trauma-informed therapist.
Number two, the next treatment for traumatic memories is EMDR. Research shows that EMDR can be really effective at helping survivors reprocess traumatic events, especially those that happen as adults. But EMDR is somewhat less successful at moderating the effects of persistent childhood trauma or abuse.
With EMDR the therapist uses bilateral movement (this is like eye movement where you’re moving side to side) to help the brain access a memory, re-label it, and then store it away as a less sharp memory.
The cool thing about EMDR is that even after treatment has ended, it continues to help because it seems to remove the stickiness of a memory. And the brain continues to reprocess memories and reduce PTSD symptoms even after treatment has ended.
Now, I wouldn’t recommend attempting to do EMDR on yourself, but there is some evidence indicating that during walking, hiking, or biking, or other forward movement exercise, your eyes naturally move side to side as you take in the scenery, and this type of exercise can help you process through emotions and memories.
Regardless of whether that’s going to work the way EMDR works, exercise is generally really good for mental and physical health. So that is something you can do on your own.
3. Somatic Therapy
The third treatment is somatic therapy. Now, not all memories are conscious memories. There are two types of memories: there’s the implicit and the explicit, or conscious memories.
Implicit memories are stored in the deeper, older parts of the brain. They’re connected to bodily sensations. So if you smell something delicious, you may not remember why but that smell is connected to a memory of love or happiness. Or if someone startles you, your arm might seem to move on its own to punch them before you even think.
So these types of memories are stored deeper than our thoughts, and they often show up in our body and in our nervous system response. To treat these body-based memories, somatic approaches can be really powerful.
One technique is called completion. So if someone feels in their body the need to run away, they might, they might practice expressing that through body movement. Or if someone feels unsafe or jittery in their body, they might be asked to sit with that feeling, to exaggerate that feeling, to lean into it, to jiggle their legs harder, and then watch as that sensation diminishes.
Somatic approaches work with the body to process through the habits and reflexes and Impressions that are stored in our nervous system. Let me give you an example.
I had a trainer who had experienced sexual abuse as a child. And as an adult he did a lot of therapy, but he also started rock climbing.
As he improved as a climber, he realized that his hips were really tight, that his pelvis was really tight and rigid, and that he was constantly storing tension there. And as he worked to improve his flexibility to be a better climber, some intense feelings and memories came up for him. When he would open his hips he’d feel big emotions. He’d feel scared or anxious or guilty.
But as he continued to climb and as he worked through those feelings, both in climbing and in therapy, and as he stretched and loosened his pelvic floor, he would address those sensations. He’d acknowledge them, and he’d lean into them and then try to soften them a little. Over time they began to resolve and he started to feel more relaxed, both emotionally and physically.
And it helped him make progress both in climbing and in mental health. He was less stressed and more open both physically and emotionally.
So interventions like expressive dance, yoga, mindful body scans, tai chi, and other forms of body movement can help you get into touch with your body’s memories. You can scan for tight spots, and you can listen to the parts of your body that are in pain, that are tense or feel disconnected. And you can work within your growth zone to explore those parts through acceptance, gentle movement, compassion, and stretching.
4. Cognitive Therapy
Conscious memories are memories that are more sequential and orderly. It’s like saying, “This is what happened, and then this happened.” It’s usually something we can put into words. And these memories are stored in the rational, thinking part of our brain.
We can address the conscious memories through cognitive therapy, through talking about memories, writing about them, drawing them, sharing them. And this can help you retrieve the memories and then restore them from a calmer perspective. And this is a regular part of cognitive therapy.
Regular memories are usually stored in the left front part of the brain, where words and stories are processed in an orderly manner. Traumatic memories are often stored in the right hemisphere of the brain, the sensory part of the brain, and this can make it hard to put them into words or difficult to organize how you think and how you feel about them.
Cognitive therapy seeks to make sense of these memories, to put them into words and to make them concrete. And then when they’re more clear, you can often come to peace with the memories.
Now, many people with trauma feel compelled to write their story, to write a memoir, to keep a journal, to create art or music about what they feel. And in my opinion, this may be the mind’s instinctive way to work through painful memories, to create a sense of them through expression.
Now, this isn’t the same as CBT where cognitive distortions are pointed out and corrected. It’s a more expressive approach to emotions. But in my work, both CBT and these expressive therapies can be really effective, and sometimes more effective than just talking about a memory.
One of my clients, for example, wrote a couple of songs about her trauma, and the act of looking for words to express her feelings seemed to be very healing for her.
Another one of my clients wrote her entire story of abuse in a notebook. And as she did, she gained a lot of clarity about who was really at fault. Which, you know, was the abuser, not herself.
And then she shared her story in a group of her peers and they held a burning. So we went out back, we lit a big fire, and we slowly burned each page. And all of these approaches seemed to help her as she processed her trauma.
So there you have it. There are four ways that traumatic memories differ from regular memories and four ways that we can treat PTSD and traumatic memories. I hope you found this post helpful.
Thank you for watching, and take care.
If you want more skills to help with trauma, check out my free course, Grounding Skills for Anxiety, Stress and PTSD below.