Life's a beach! (and other useful ways to understand your trauma)

Imagine a giant beach ball under the water. This ball represents a traumatic memory you're trying to avoid. Holding it down takes all your effort – both hands gripping tight, using all your focus. It might be OK for the first few minutes, but soon you get tired.
Distractions pop up, and the moment you forget and lose focus, whoosh! Up shoots the beach ball, exploding out of the water and splashing you with a wave of cold memory. This sudden jolt can leave you feeling drained and upset, just like the memory's initial impact.


That's what CBT helps you avoid. Instead of fighting to keep the beach ball down, you learn to "let some air out" of it. It's not easy, but over time, the memory loses its power. It's like a deflated beach ball, bobbing gently on the waves, no longer a threat to pull you under.

Learning to let the ball float calmly to the surface

As we discussed, CBT aims to shift our approach from desperately holding the beach ball underwater to gently "letting some air out" of it. This distinction between "bad" and "traumatic" memories often lies in their level of emotional intensity. Traumatic memories are like overly inflated beach balls, ready to explode at any reminder.

Through exposure therapy, we can deflate the ball, transforming that traumatic memory into a less reactive one.  It won't disappear completely, but it won't control you either. Imagine it as a deflated beach ball, still visible but calmly bobbing on the surface. You can acknowledge it's there, but it no longer dictates your mood. The power lies in you, not the memory.

OK, so how do we let air out of the ball? 

Exposure therapy isn't about throwing you headfirst into your fears. It's a gradual process where we slowly expose you to the things that trigger your traumatic memories but in a safe and controlled environment. This allows you to process and accept what happened in a healthy way.

Remember the giant beach ball? By gradually "letting air out" through exposure therapy, the memory loses its explosive power. It won't vanish entirely, but it becomes like a deflated beach ball – still there, but no longer a threat. You can acknowledge it's floating on the surface, but it no longer feels like you have to ignore it or constantly push it down. Now, you're in control.

Think about it like this: Have you ever noticed how difficult the challenges get on shows like "I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!"? The contestants face tougher and tougher situations as the show goes on. Why do you think this happens?

It's not because the producers are just out to torture them! It's because they know that with repeated exposure, the things that scared the contestants at the beginning become less overwhelming. Just like the beach ball losing its air, the memory loses its power to control your emotions.

Exposure therapy works in a similar way. By gradually facing the memory in a safe and controlled environment, we can start to process it in a healthy way. It might not be easy at first, but over time, you'll find that the memory no longer has the same hold on you. It's like that deflated beach ball, bobbing gently on the waves, no longer a threat to pull you under.

Reclaiming your life: Beyond the deflated beach ball

Remember that giant beach ball we've been using as an analogy? Well, with exposure therapy, we've finally managed to "let all the air out." That deflated ball, bobbing gently on the waves, represents the memory losing its power over you.

Here's the exciting part: this newfound freedom extends beyond the beach ball. Imagine regaining the use of both your arms – no longer needed to hold the memory down. You can finally move around freely, explore new experiences, and engage with life with both hands open.

This means forgetting what once troubled you, not in the sense of erasing the memory, but no longer letting it dictate your every move. You can stop living in a state of hypervigilance, constantly on guard. This frees up your mental energy and allows you to re-engage with the activities that truly bring you joy. Life can feel fulfilling again, like swimming in a calm ocean instead of battling waves.

Now, here's something to consider: while we don't wish for trauma, sometimes it can be a catalyst for learning valuable life lessons. Perhaps the experience caused you to re-evaluate your priorities or discover new strengths. Did it make you appreciate certain relationships more?

The "wisdom" of trauma may be a harsh teacher, but its lessons can be powerful. Think about what you've learned and integrate it into your life. It doesn't mean glorifying the experience, but acknowledging how it might have shaped you into a more resilient person.

Living with this lesson doesn't mean dwelling on the past. It's about acknowledging it, using the newfound strength to navigate the present, and embracing the possibilities for a future free from the grip of your traumatic memory. You're no longer defined by what happened, but by the strength and resilience you've built in overcoming it.

If this resonates and you feel you might benefit from giving yourself a break from avoiding your thoughts and feelings, maybe I can help. Don't be shy - book in for a free chat with me to see how we can begin to make life more manageable. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Bristol BS8 & BS2
Written by Tom Holland-Pearse
Bristol BS8 & BS2

Tom Holland-Pearse: Qualified therapist (9+ yrs) in NHS & private practice. Empowers individuals to navigate life's challenges & build emotional well-being.

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