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Troubled by Memories

After a distressing or traumatic experience, it’s normal to relive what happened and even to have dreams about it. If it gets too much, we might deliberately try to block it out and force ourselves to think about something else. This usually settles down within the first week or two. But if it keeps going, and you don’t feel like you’re able to come to terms with what has happened you might have a problem with posttraumatic stress.
This section defines Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and suggests ways you can help yourself and where you can get help if you need it.

Troubled by Memories

Memories and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD is marked by clear physical and psychological symptoms such as reliving events, nightmares, anxiety, memory and cognition problems, and other physical and mental health issues. The disorder is also associated with difficulties in social or family life, including occupational instability, marital problems, family discord, and difficulties in parenting.

While PTSD is commonly associated with military personnel who have undertaken active service, the disorder is common - about two thirds of New Zealanders will experience at least one traumatic event in their lives that has the potential to cause PTSD.

In addition to traumas commonly faced by the general community such as car accidents and assaults, military personnel can be exposed to a number of traumatic events during the course of their service. This places them at greater risk of developing PTSD than the general population. 

Why am I suffering PTSD?

It’s not uncommon to have trouble processing big events, even if you’ve been trained for them. After a trauma, your mind tries to process or come to terms with what has happened. This is the body’s way of dealing with the trauma – the more you think about it, the more you come to terms with what has happened and the memory gradually fades.

Some people find this processing of the trauma too stressful and block or attempt to block it out by avoiding things that remind them of it. Avoidance prevents the natural process of coming to terms with the event and you find that it keeps coming back nonetheless and increasing the potential for longer term PTSD.

Do I have a problem with PTSD?

In the first few days and weeks following a traumatic event, you might experience strong feelings of fear, guilt or anger, feel jumpy or have trouble sleeping. There’s no firm rule on how long it will take to get back to your normal way of life but if you’re still struggling after a couple of weeks, it’s probably time to ask for help.

Recurrent nightmares or unwanted thoughts are a sign that you may have a problem. Some people aren’t so affected or troubled by memories but may be reacting in a different way. If you’re worried or feeling depressed or anxious, how much you’re drinking or using drugs, click on the links to find out more about these serious mental health concerns.

What can I do about it?

The following tools may be useful in helping to cope with the processing of the trauma you have experienced. For some people though, the challenge is just too great to handle on their own, so for their own sake and for the sake of their families it’s important to seek professional help.

Tell your story

You might be trying to forget about what happened and feel like talking about it will be way too painful. But actually, talking about your experience with someone you trust, or even just writing it down, can be really helpful. The more you do something, the easier it gets, and it’s the same with telling your story.

Also, talking about your experience helps you to make sense of what happened and maybe see it from a different perspective. Even if you don’t remember all the details, say if you were knocked unconscious, you can still talk about the parts you do remember from before and after the blackout. You can also talk about what you imagine happened in the parts you can’t remember (or what people have told you), and how you feel about not being able to remember.

If you find talking about your experience extremely upsetting, or it’s been a long time since the event happened, it’s probably best to talk it through with a professional. Find out more about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and its treatment.

Avoid avoiding the issue

Don’t try and hide from it. For example, you might make a point of continuing to see your military mates even though this may remind you of the event. As mentioned earlier, avoiding the event delays the natural process of coming to terms with it.

Look after your physical health

After a traumatic experience, it's hard to take care of yourself. But ignoring your health will only make it harder to cope. Try to eat well and regularly, get plenty of rest, do some exercise every day, and cut down on alcohol and other drugs. You might be surprised what a difference this can make to the way you feel.

Getting help

If you have tried self management but feel it’s not enough, if you feel that life is not worth living, if you struggle to be with other people, or if you're unable to carry out your normal role (e.g. as a worker, a parent, a student), then you might benefit from some professional help.

  • Your doctor or other mental health professional is always a good place to start. He or she can help with a thorough assessment of the problem and make referrals for specialists.

  • This website has information on a range of professional care that is available to current and former serving members.