The two deer appeared out of nowhere and raced across the highway. I was traveling at 65 mph and heading straight toward them. I had heard stories from clients and friends about deer encounters on the highway. In fact, I had treated a client for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after he’d hit a deer.
I’m the type of person who hates to step on an ant. Today it looked like two deer would be killed – or my wife and I – or all of us. Even though I knew that a driver was more likely to get killed by taking evasive action than by hitting a deer, I made a quick decision. Since no cars were tailgating me, I took my foot off the gas and began applying the brakes. The deer sailed across the road, ten feet in front of the van. We were fine, except for the fact that several hours later I began involuntarily picturing deer rolling across the hood of my car and crashing through the windshield. I had been calm during the incident, but now my frightening thoughts were in the driver’s seat.
Even though I had avoided a potentially horrible accident, my mind was manufacturing images that were making me feel as bad as if I’d hit the deer in reality. Researchers have found that traumatic memories are processed and stored differently than our memories of ordinary events. The more primitive areas of our brains automatically remember and deeply imprint danger related information. After a traumatic event, these areas of the brain can becomes over stimulated, triggering alarm states over and over again each time the memory is recalled. However, it’s possible to break this cycle of upsetting, intrusive memories and their accompanying stress with some relatively simple Cognitive Behavior Therapy techniques.
Let go of “What if” Thinking
Since I use Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) every day to help people change negative, upsetting thoughts into more positive ones, I knew just what to do with my own recurring images. I identified my upsetting thoughts (We could have been killed. What if I had miscalculated?) and counteracted them with logical, reassuring thoughts (We are safe. I made the right decision.). Then I used creative visualization to reinforce these positive thoughts. I imagined the deer standing peacefully in the forest- far from the road and far from my car. Picturing this serene image, especially before falling asleep, allowed me to relax and let go of “what if” thinking.
If you experience recurring, upsetting memories or flashbacks as a result of traumatic events in your life, CBT and guided imagery are just two approaches that can help you break the cycle and regain a sense of control. (I encourage you to check out the guided imagery audio programs available through www.healthjourneys.com. ) Most importantly, remember that help is available as you undertake your healing journey. There’s no need to go it alone.