Don't be scared
October 23, 2011 2:38 AM   Subscribe

Anyone have any tips for speeding up the process of "forgetting" scary things?

I used to love horror films growing up, but it would always take a few weeks afterwards to not be afraid of whatever happened in the movie. The fear would totally affect my daily life--for 3 days after seeing The Ring I refused to be alone and would have friends actually sit in the bathroom with me while I did my business.
A few years ago I wanted to stop being afraid so I stopped watching or reading anything remotely scary and it worked and I've been happy.

On Tuesday, as a domestic violence awareness deal, a friend posted a story on her Facebook wall about a woman who was tortured. I started reading the post and it went into really graphic details about what had happened and 3/4 of the way through I pulled myself away completely disturbed. I couldn't eat or sleep for the rest of the day. I haven't used Facebook since then to reduce my chances of running into the post again.
The fear/anxiety is slowly starting to go away, thoughts of the story only pop up now when I'm not actively doing something or when I stop doing a task or if I'm sitting in silence. I'm eating food and sleeping (although, I've been falling asleep to the TV to provide a distraction) so things are definitely getting better but I'd like to speed up the process.

I'm not really sure what this whole deal is called. I guess it's not really forgetting because I don't actually stop remembering... maybe something along the lines of desensitization?
Any tips or tricks I could use for this instance (and for future accidental exposure) would be greatly appreciated.
posted by simplethings to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You might try inquiring into your stressful thoughts using Byron Katie's work
posted by salishsea at 2:58 AM on October 23, 2011

People shared a bunch of techniques for dealing with disturbing imagery (mostly fictional imagery, but also non-fictional) in this thread a few months ago — might be worth checking out if you haven't already. (And, dear reader, consider whether you really want to click the link if you're not currently being bothered by any imagery, since it includes discussion of squicky things you may not want to be reminded of.)
posted by dreamyshade at 2:58 AM on October 23, 2011

I like to whistle.

It doesn't matter what it is, it could be the loop or the hook from the last song you heard on the radio, the ABC news theme, a Springsteen chorus, children's songs, advertising jingles, the Internationale, Beethoven, a blues riff, DEVO, whatever. Try whistling.

I'm whistling now.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 2:58 AM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Immersion therapy?

When people are being treated for phobias, they're typically repeatedly exposed to the offending stimulus -- gradually at first, but eventually they're immersed in it.

In your case, a good start would be to try reading facebook without looking at the story -- if you see it, just scroll past it and continue reading.

After that, read the story, no matter how harrowing, all the way through. Then read it again. Then read it again. And so on.

The same process goes for any sort of scary thing you encounter -- the surest way to stop being afraid of something is to be familiar with it.
posted by modernserf at 3:01 AM on October 23, 2011

The Ring scared me for a good couple of weeks after I saw it. I sympathize. I was a very fearful teenager and young adult... even movies such as My Boyfriend's Back - a totally non-scary zombie comedy - scared me.

What modernserf said about immersion therapy rings true to me. I was very depressed in my early 20s and became obsessed with morbid things. I looked at tons of morbid sites and I kind of got over being afraid of death and scary things. Now I can watch really scary movies all the time, and in fact I enjoy it. This may not be the path for you, however. If you decide to go this route you might want to seek out a therapist to help you.

Given all that, I still have my limits. A friend insisted I see all 7 Saw movies with her (I stopped after Saw 4 because they were getting to me), and I had to get myself through the last 3 by telling myself, "oh that arm that's being cut is so fake. His real arm is inside his coat." Thinking about the technology they used to create the image of Samara crawling out of the screen might help to make it less scary for you. Perhaps they used a green screen. Maybe it was some fancy digital editing. This might at least help with the movies.

Regarding the real news story of the tortured woman, I just want to let you know that it's okay to cry, even though she was a stranger. You don't have to hold it all in. Don't feel silly about it. If crying helps, then cry. Sometimes horrible things happen in the world and we need to grieve.
posted by IndigoRain at 4:10 AM on October 23, 2011

Supposedly playing Tetris helps with PTSD. Maybe it or something similarly mindless would help you too? (This suggestion came from another thread on here, but I'm not linking to it because it gave ME mental imagery issues for days.)
posted by lollusc at 5:49 AM on October 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Answer the fear with reason: This terrible event is thankfully rare. I'm so sad for this woman's experience, I will do what I can to stop it from happening again, but it's not going to happen to me. etc.
posted by theora55 at 6:12 AM on October 23, 2011

I see some incredibly disturbing stuff at work sometimes (hospital) and my personal attitude is that if you try to drive it out of your brain, you actually drive it deep inside. Now if I see something really awful I let myself think about it, twirl it around a bit, with the knowledge that it will go eventually. It would be nice to instantly forget about it, but by giving it the weight that you HAVE TO get it out of your head NOW, I think you give your brain the idea that it's REALLY IMPORTANT and your stress hormones are probably kicking in to high gear.

So simple answer: I don't know that you can forget something faster than it needs to be forgotten. You need to accept that you are disturbed by something and wait till that feeling passes.
posted by sully75 at 6:58 AM on October 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

I read junk mail. It totally works.

PS OK that 'holes' thread just cuts too close to the bone for me. Spiders, fine, snakes, fine, the undead, fine, that girl from the Ring, fine. But holes, uugughghghghghghghugh....
posted by Sutekh at 7:11 AM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

These are awesome suggestion, thanks everyone.
I just recently figured put how to whistle so I'll definitely be practicing more.
Someone will need to hold my hand if I go through the immersion therapy route.
I'm definitely downloading Tetris on to my phone just in case. :)
posted by simplethings at 9:12 AM on October 23, 2011

I've always used the method sully75 is talking about here, but it can take me up to two weeks to be able to sleep again if it's something that really haunts me, as some things do. Especially with something visual, I sometimes can't close my eyes without seeing it. And particularly if it's just some shock image I've seen, I just can't do that every time.

So when I read the Tetris study that lollusc recommends, I put it in my bag of tricks. Effectively, it works by giving your brain a visual task to keep it from imprinting a visual memory. Based on what I read about it, it's important that you distract yourself as soon as possible. So, last week or so, when I saw something disturbing that would normally imprint itself, and I didn't have a way to play Tetris quickly, I gave myself a visual task. I was a passenger in a car, so I looked for patterns on moving car wheels. (I can get really wrapped up in articulating patterns, so this works very well for me.) It seems to have worked, because while I still have a disturbing visual memory of an earlier and less subjectively disturbing thing I saw several months ago, I do not have the more recent and more disturbing one.

Which doesn't directly address your issue with verbal descriptions, but may give some hints about ways to manage them. The core technique being to immediately engage your brain in something that will prevent it from imprinting the event. I have no idea if it'd work with something textual, but based on my success with the visual thing, I'd give it a shot in the future. Maybe look around, find something in your environment, and give yourself a task combining visual and textual skills. Find a pattern, give its elements names, and then articulate that pattern, so you're engaging both your verbal and visual brain.

I just realized how crazy I'm making myself sound, but whatever. This isn't my real name.
posted by ernielundquist at 9:18 AM on October 23, 2011

Get high?
posted by spasm at 11:54 AM on October 23, 2011

I have no evidence of this other than REALLY anecdotal, but my father is a really emotive, talkative person. He was in Vietnam, in the infantry (pretty much along the lines of The Things They Carried). I think he got out pretty good, relative to seeing really horrible stuff, but I know that he did see some of his friends die in front of him. Not all his friends, but a few.

Anyway, my dad has almost nothing that could be remotely classified as PTSD. He has had a history of nightmares, but fairly rare. Otherwise the occasional memory will shake him up, but in general he's remarkably unscarred.

I (again) anecdotally attribute this to my father being such an emotionally open, communicative person. I think he also lucked out with being with my mom, who is a pretty good listener about stuff like that.

In my own life, the lesson I took away from this is that when something is bothering you, you need to accept that it bothers you, feel what you need to feel and when you are ready to move on, do so. Don't belabor it but don't try to push it out of the way. My suspicion is that people who get horrible PTSD are those who felt like they needed to get horrible things out of their heads (with good reason).

Again, I'm talking out of my asshole here.
posted by sully75 at 12:30 PM on October 23, 2011

Putting your feelings of fear into words, in particular, labelling your exact emotions will help.
posted by storybored at 8:58 PM on October 23, 2011

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