Re-traumatized by old memories

When Gary recalls a negative memory, he re-experiences the emotion he felt, and gets upset. Since he is prone to obsessive thinking, once a negative emotion triggers, he can obsess about it — and stay upset — for hours.

Tabitha gets trauma flashbacks. She re-experiences events so vividly that they re-traumatize her. Afterward fear, anxiety, depression, and crying jags can debilitate her for days, and affect her mood for weeks.

Emotionally loaded recall is especially common in people with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), a learned trauma response. It’s also common among people with Asperger syndrome. Like Gary, Aspies are prone to obsess over negative emotions and make them worse.

Of course, re-experiencing remembered emotions can be an asset when you recall pleasant memories. But with negative experiences — especially traumas — it’s usually preferable to get the useful life lessons from less-than-positive memories, without getting upset or re-traumatized.

How to help clients who do traumatic recall

Doing NLP processes to remove emotional charge from problem memories is particularly useful when a client has a few traumatic or upsetting memories. What if your client has many problem memories, like Tabitha? What if your client’s recall strategy makes any negative memory into a potential problem, like Gary?

You can dramatically help clients with problem recall strategies by teaching them to:

  1. Associate into pleasant memories. (Except for memories of addictions, compulsions, obsessions, and possibly escapism, of course.)
  2. Disassociate from unpleasant memories.
  3. Use partial disassociation to get additional information from unpleasant memories. For instance, the client might associate only into physical sensations (external auditory and visual; tactile and body position K), while remaining disassociated from their past emotional state and thoughts.

Installing an improved recall strategy

1. Determine whether the client knows how to associate and disassociate. Some people associate so automatically and consistently that disassociation is a new experience for them! Teach these clients to disassociate using 3 neutral memories.

A client who is new to disassociation or has trouble disassociating may benefit from Connirae Andreas’s process for Aligning Perceptual Positions before proceeding further.

2. Model how the client recalls neutral, mildly pleasant, and mildly unpleasant memories. Which are associated, which disassociated?

3. Have your client practice associating into 3 or more pleasant memories. Include at least one mildly pleasant memory, so they learn to enjoy recalling small pleasures, and one or more intensely pleasant memories. (If your client consistently associates into pleasant memories already, you can skip this step.)

4. Have your client practice disassociated recall of 3 or more mildly unpleasant memories. Once they can do that,

5. Have your client practice disassociated recall of 3 more intense unpleasant memories. Gradually increase intensity. If your client encounters a memory they can’t disassociate from, use a reverse-time trauma resolution process to remove the emotional charge, then try again.

6. Teach your client partial disassociation. At times a client might need additional information about an unpleasant experience — information that can only be accessed via association. Fortunately, association is analog rather than digital: a person can associate into some aspects of a memory (such as tactile sensations, body positions, and smells), while staying disassociated from the most troubling parts of the experience (remembered thoughts and emotions).

Start by having the client do V/K disassociation from a neutral memory, where a they see a movie of themselves having a past experience, over there.

Next, have them experiment with associating only auditorily, then only visually, without associating into their remembered thoughts, emotions, or kinesthetics:

“As you watch that you over there, notice the sounds coming from that movie. Now I’d like you to imagine that you are putting on a pair of headphones that will allow you to hear the sounds exactly as the you in that movie hears them, as you continue to watch the picture from over here. You’ll hear the movie as if you were in it, hearing the sounds all around you, while at the same time you’ll see the movie from over here, observing from outside. Let me know when you’ve done that…

“Good. Now remove your headphones…

“Have you ever watched a scene in a movie where the camera was the character’s point of view? Perhaps the character was going down a hallway, and the movie showed what they would see. It was like you were looking out of their eyes.  And while you saw that, you stayed inside your body, and you might not have noticed at the time, but you could feel the chair you were sitting in, and the weight of your body, and your breathing. Now I’d like you to imagine something similar. Your body is going to stay over here, and you’ll continue to hear the movie playing over there, while you see the movie as if you were looking through the eyes of that you over there, and you’ll continue to feel the physical sensations of being here, in this body. And let me know when you’ve done that…

“Excellent. Now come back to this body and watch and listen from over here…”

Now have the client add one type of associated sensation at a time, such as tactile feeling or temperature awareness.  Since emotional sensations tend to occur along the midline and inside the body, especially in the chest and abdomen, I tell clients to add tactile sensations only on the surface of their body, and to add awareness of their body position, but not midline or gut sensations.

Once the client has successfully done partial disassociation with several neutral memories, have them practice with several mildly unpleasant ones.

7. Create a way to get more information from disassociated memories. In addition to teaching partial disassociation, it’s often useful to have the client make a movie screen that shows their emotions and thoughts as they view a disassociated movie, or create a soundtrack with a neutral observer voice that describes their emotions and thoughts, so that client can tell what is in an experience without needing to associate into the memory at all.

8. Have your client practice instant disassociation if they accidentally associate into the problematic aspects of a memory. I also have them practice disassociating from a negative memory as soon as they get the information they want. The goal is to create a strategy where the client does the minimum amount of association to retrieve the information they want, then disassociates. Have them practice enough times that the response becomes automatic. This ensures that they won’t get stuck in — or triggered by — a problem memory.

I used to have thousands of traumatic and intensely negative memories. Like Gary and Tabitha, I had an associated recall strategy that often left me upset for hours or days. Doing NLP trauma resolution processes helped some, but I was still left with countless other memories that could trigger emotional upsets. Once I learned to do disassociated recall of negative memories, my life became a lot more pleasant.


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