My Therapist's Advice for Dealing With Scary Experiences

It's all about completing the cycle.
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sunset

A few weeks back, we had a pretty intense medical scare in the family. Though I talk about the vast majority of my life here, this is one situation I don't feel comfortable sharing, but just know that it involved the most traumatizing few minutes of my life, and everything turned out to be 100% okay.

Still, when I went to bed later that night, all I could do was replay the situation on a loop, and each time it would leave me absolutely panic-stricken, tense, and terrified—even though I knew everything was fine. The next day by lunchtime, when I felt like my shoulders were touching my ears, I decided to reach out to my therapist for a quick phone call, something I can't remember ever feeling the need to do between sessions. After I explained what had happened, he shared a couple of things that resonated so much with me that I could see them benefitting anyone who's ever relived a scary situation, despite it turning out okay:

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The first thing is to give yourself permission to take time to process things. As soon as I told my therapist what had happened, and explained that I didn't know how to unwind from it, he surprised me by saying, "What happened to you was extraordinarily traumatizing. It's no surprise that you're still feeling the effects of what you experienced. You shouldn't be over it a few minutes, days, or even months later." In other words, instead of pushing negative feelings away, allow yourself to experience them. It's all part of the normal process of healing. But the next thing he told me is key to feeling better in the moment and, ultimately, recovering...

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"You're replaying the incident in your mind, but you're not completing the cycle of what happened. Yes, you're going through what took place, but you're ending the narrative at the terrifying moment, then repeating. You need to finish the story. Yes, this awful thing happened, BUT...everything is fine." Every time that loop begins to play, he explained, I had to remind myself of how it ended—it was scary, but everything was okay

I had only been telling myself the scariest parts, but by shifting my perspective to seeing the experience as a whole, I was able to process it in a much healthier, more productive way. Imagine experiencing horrible turbulence on a flight. Of course, you're going to replay the moments when you thought the plane was going down, but complete the story: The plane landed, you stepped off the flight safe, and in an entirely new place from where you were just hours before. 

These tips even help to process past trauma. The summer before high school, I got caught in a riptide at dusk for nearly an hour, and it's something I still think about today (and a big part of why I don't go into the ocean anymore). The part I replay is the constant crashing down of the waves on top of me, when I was gasping for air and unsure how I'd get back to shore. But, if I complete the cycle, I remember that my dad was the one who spotted me from the beach, ran into the water, and made sure I got in safely. I didn't realize how important it is to finish the story.