There is so much here, I hardly want to begin – because I don’t want to risk turning this into half of a book. Selco and Whirlibird touch on things that ONLY one who’s “been there, done that” can possibly understand fully. But that doesn’t mean others should not do their best to comprehend it (not the same thing as understanding, mind you).
Yes, there will be things that can come back and – in a completely unexpected instant – haunt you after experiencing horrific things. There’s no controlling the onset, though there can be ways of limiting the impact. Having something that was, at some time in your life, very soothing, or very enjoyable, can be almost life saving – or maybe EVEN.
When I did trauma work with clients, one of the things I learned to do was begin by having them identify the first significant thing they could think of that occurred in their lives after the trauma was all over – just a single event, not a period in their lives. It could be as simple as a really fun birthday party for one of their kids after they came home from deployment. Once described in detail (who was there, sounds, colors, textures, posture of the individual – standing, sitting, whatever), I’d then have them describe in similar detail some event in equal detailed specifics that occurred not long BEFORE the trauma (neither had to be within hours or days, but at least reasonably close, and OUT of the proximity of the traumatic event or circumstances).
Those two events became “grounding” events. There’s far more to it than that, but basically when something triggers a negative reaction (a smell, music, an image, a sound), they could be “trained” to use a trigger to go to the pleasant event just prior to the traumatic event, run through it in their minds JUST to the pleasant conclusion of the event, and then using a mental remote control, jumping forward to the pleasant scene AFTER the traumatic event, and playing that from start to finish in their minds, then coming back to the here-and-now of their current moment, thereby bypassing the trauma that had been triggered by instantly jumping backward to a prior pleasant experience, then jumping instantly forward to a pleasant experience after the trauma, and then coming back to “right now” in whatever safe place they’re in.
There’s much more to it than that, but the principle is there. While triggers can be instant and negative, we can also make sure we have triggers that can become instant and soothing or positive. And an old musical recording could indeed be one of those. Or a very pleasant smell from some childhood memory in grandma’s kitchen, or whatever. Build a list of such positive triggers, and if possible, have a way of triggering them perhaps through a small MP3 player or some such device, to suddenly play when you most need it. This may sound stupid to people who’ve never “been there, done that,” but those that understand, understand. Smells are the most powerful sensory input for triggering emotions from the past – both positive and negative. Sounds come close to the power of smells. I remember the smell of the kitchen at a cabin near a lake I went to a couple of times as a kid with my father. The cabin was occupied by the grandmother of a girl I developed a crush on one summer. While the odor itself was not particularly pleasant, it was very distinct. And more than 55 years later it brings back a very soothing memory of a girl I felt very happy around, even if only for a brief part of a summer. That sounds insignificant, but that’s the unimportant part – it’s the emotion that comes from it, and that’s all that matters. Why the smell is associated with it, does not matter in the least – it just is, and can be useful. Search your own memories for little, seemingly incidental things that are rarely even recalled – they’re there, and can be very useful. They could be just as emotionally “saving” as the negative sounds or smells (or the other 3 senses) that can send us into an emotional tailspin.
Thanks Selco and WB. Great wisdom there.