Make the demons in my head go away
March 28, 2007 1:11 PM   Subscribe

How do I get terrible images and memories out of my head?

I'm one of those guys with an extremely good, vivid, image-based memory. Show me a picture of something, and I can call it up in my mind at will. I can see every detail; it's like I'm watching a movie in my head. I'm a creative guy, in a creative field, and I also have a vivid imagination and capability for empathy. Get me started, and my mind can go anywhere. Most of the time, I can make this work for me quite well.

Ever since I had my own children, I've been ... tormented ... by stories of violence, especially to children. I can see the images in my head; I can't escape them. The recent case of Christopher Barrios in Savannah, Georgia, is a perfect example; I can't seem to let it go. I can't get that little boy's smiling face out of my mind. I can SEE the crime all happening in my imagination. I have the entire horrible movie playing on a loop inside my head. All made up. The mind just filling in the blanks. I can't control it.

I'm not crazy. I *know* this is irrational. I *know* this is my imagination getting the best of me. I *know* this is all inside my head. I *know* this is related to my empathy for my own kids.

I just feel anxious and icky and horrified for days after hearing another story. I think of these poor kids, the imagination goes crazy, my love for my own kids gets mixed in and ... ick.

I don't believe in magic or the wishy-washy areas psychology, and I generally like my imagination, so I'd like to keep it. I just need tools and strategies to smooth out the rough edges.

How does someone like Stephen King do it? How do you walk around with images of real horror in your head and still have enough mental energy to, like, just take out the garbage, mow the lawn and keep on truckin'?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (28 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
A few of Paul McKenna's techniques for removing unwanted imagery and emotions involve:

1. When you picture the image, or start thinking about it, try to freeze-frame it, then decide to turn the brightness of it waaaaay up so it turns into a white "screen" and disappears.

2. Again freeze-frame it, make the image black and white or saturate all the colour out of it and then zoom out of the picture until it is far away, like a pin point, and disappears.

3. If you can't freeze frame it, let it run like a film but give the voices and sounds a squeaky, cartoonish Mickey Mouse effect. Something that's silly or laughable. Then in your minds-eye move it away from where you feel or here it, shifting it to an external spot like the end of your finger and flick it away.

It's just your imagination but McKenna recognises this is one of the most powerful things humans have and helps you use it to beat your fears, phobias and obsessions.

Read more of his stuff for answers.
posted by brautigan at 1:33 PM on March 28, 2007 [8 favorites]

This sounds like the obsessive part of OCD. I might recommend talking to a therapist about it to get some help. I recommend The Feeling Good Handbook by David D. Burns. I bet, from the comment, brautigan's recommendation is also very good.

I think anything that helps you regain control will ease this a lot and there are many ways to do that.

Good luck; if you take some action you have a very good prognosis.
posted by crhanson at 1:40 PM on March 28, 2007

Oh, and I don't know what you mean by wishy-washy areas psychology. Burn's book is centered around cognitive therapy which is well studied, mainstream, and not pseudo science.
posted by crhanson at 1:43 PM on March 28, 2007

posted by thirteenkiller at 1:46 PM on March 28, 2007

I have a similar issue, in that I'm very good at calling up excrutiatingly embarrassing memories at any given moment. I recently realized that I was addicted to the very minor adrenaline rush that such recall brings on. So when the memory comes up I direct my attention to that rush and concentrate on that, rather than on rehashing my horrible past foibles for the 10 billionth time.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 1:52 PM on March 28, 2007 [4 favorites]

Eye movement desensitization therapy is supposed to help with extreme cases of this (esp where the bad things happened to you); it's also called EMDR. You might search for that to find someone who's trained to do it near you.

Also, meditation practice is supposed to help you learn to make your mind blank. So you could seek a reputable place near you that teaches meditation.

I'm a bit prone to this too, and my solution is just to force myself not to read news about child abuse cases etc. My reading about it and agonizing over it doesn't help anything. I sometimes think of it as a morally-valuable "bearing witness", but really it's just self-torture. It's like poking at a bruise, prodding a loose tooth with your tongue, or any of a thousand other behaviors like that -- hurting yourself in small doses because some part of you likes that hurt. This is why weepy movies on Lifetime are big ratings-getters; this is why so many of CNN's headlines involve sensationalist stories of rape, abuse, torture, etc.

The solution, I think, is to avoid that kind of stimulus as much as possible (while remaining an engaged citizen in areas where you can do something positive to prevent harms like this).
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:06 PM on March 28, 2007

anon, there's nothing wrong with you. I have become MUCH more sensitive to "what's wrong in the world" since I became a parent.

For example, I am not a worrier, and one night, at about 3am, I went and slept in the floor of my son's room because I had become convinced there was going to be a fire, and I needed to be there to get him out. I was not going to be able to go back to sleep in my room, so it was give in to the neurosis, or stay awake all night. Note that his bedroom is maybe 35 feet from mine, and that we have hard-wired smoke detectors in every room, AND a monitored burglar/fire alarm system. But yet I still had to be right there, due to a completely manufactured situation in my head.

I will see things on the news that just break my heart, and make me think of what I would do in that situation. Yes, it is extremely unlikely that my child will be abducted... but it obviously happens to SOME children, and it would be mind-bending to deal with.

I understand the low likelihood of some events occurring, for instance I don't sleep in my son's floor every night, but sometimes, your mind gets the best of you.

Now, how do you deal with that? I don't know, I'm still learning. I have to just remind myself that I am making all reasonable safeguards for my family's safety, and that sometimes catastrophes happen, and if they happen to you, all you can do is handle it when the time comes, and have a fucking nervous breakdown, and hope the authorities pull off a miracle.


That's all I know to tell you. Don't torture yourself with the thoughts and images. Prepare as much as reasonable, and then play the percentages.
posted by Ynoxas at 2:12 PM on March 28, 2007

One thing that will help you is to know this: This is fairly common.

I had it. I suffered from very vivid and extremely disturbing obsessive intrusive thoughts in my mid twenties. I thought I was going nuts.

I thought I was the only normal person in history who had this. It was such a relief to know how common it is. It is indeed a mild form of OCD, usually also related to depression.

I can pinpoint exactly when it started and ended with me. My episode started with an excruciating nightmare I woke in the middle of.... and some how the imagery stuck with me. Prompted I think by a horror movie or something. The entire phenomena centered around the woman I lived with at the time — my first real intense adult relationship—which exacerbated the guilt and self disgust. And that was the trap.

You have to see a shrink. There are layers of shit at work here. Deep — I mean DEEP seated feelings of things like inadequacy and guilt — that keeping you from letting go of what is normally 90% of the time are harmless intrusive images and thoughts.

I was at that time terrified of being in the serious relationship. Deep deep down. And the thought that these horrible images of abuse could come into my mind, images from the news or from movies would pop in my head and I could not shake them.

Yet I KNEW it was bullshit. I knew I was in love with this person and wasn't nuts.

The tension between these these two mental states keeps the obsessive cycle going.

I don't think going through this alone is wise. A shrink will give you cognitive and behavioral tools and exercises to alleviate the anxiety and rid your self of specific images and thoughts. You need to confide in somebody who is 100% objective. You need to be able to express thing with total honesty and hold nothing back. And it will go away.

It only took a few visits to a shrink to really help. That combined with time and exercise to rid the body of tension/ depression. It has never reoccurred.

See how normal and well adjusted I am?

Um. Well the problem never reoccurred anyway.
posted by tkchrist at 2:19 PM on March 28, 2007 [2 favorites]

See how normal and well adjusted I am?
posted by tkchrist at 4:19 PM on March 28

Ok, that's NOT helping. *poke*

I keed.

Seeing a therapist as tkchrist suggests sounds completely reasonable to me. It could do nothing but good.
posted by Ynoxas at 2:27 PM on March 28, 2007

Learn about meditation and Buddhism. The more you try not to think about things the more you are going to suffer. Learn to label your thoughts as just that- thoughts. There is nothing concrete about them.

When you have a thought, identify it as a just a thought and then let it go. That's the gist of it anyway.

When you learn to give just a little attention to these thoughts, you will begin to not suffer from them.
posted by wfc123 at 2:28 PM on March 28, 2007

This sounds like the obsessive part of OCD.

Otherwise known as just an obsessive disorder, without compulsions. And yes, I'd agree. I didn't meet the clinical definition of an obsessive disorder but I did obsess more often than I wanted, in similar ways as you, especially where children are concerned. (For me it was Samantha Runnion that kept popping into mind.)

I spent a summer working intensively (that is, around the other obligations of life, not hospitalized or anything) to learn techniques to stop an obsessive episode in its tracks and they've served well. A good therapist with experience with this kind of thing could be your key to more peace of mind.
posted by Dreama at 2:39 PM on March 28, 2007

Ynoxas-- sound advice.
I'm a new dad and just about lost it while watching "Babel" last week on DVD.
Slept in the nursery that night.
posted by Dizzy at 2:56 PM on March 28, 2007

I struggle with this. Various shrinks have all told me it's part of my anxiety disorder(s). Are you in your late 20's or early-mid 30's? I've been told that's when latent anxiety disorders come to the surface.

As for artists/writers/etc, I kind of think that one of the reasons they come up with disturbing stuff is that they've got in their heads to begin with and use their art to stop obsessing about it. In addition to seeing a mental health professional, perhaps consider finding an artistic outlet for some of these things (as unsettling as it might feel to actually give these images form) . . . ?
posted by treepour at 3:34 PM on March 28, 2007

Thank you for asking this. I get this all the time, and I don't even need outside sources for imagination.
posted by divabat at 3:36 PM on March 28, 2007

I agree with those mentioning obsessive disorder, or perhaps generalized anxiety. I've written about this before many time on MeFi, but I suffered from if right after my husband was hit by a car on his motorcycle. He was hospitalized for longer than we'd been married (at the time).

Anxiety and obsessiveness are a downward spiral. Even though you *know* the things you are worried about are far-fetched or unlikely or hypothetical, as soon as you allow the worries to enter you mind, they grow and explode and take over. The trick is to not let them in in the first place.

The most helpful thing I've ever read is this: there is no use worrying about the things you can't change, since you can't do anything about them, and there is no use worrying about the things you can change since you have the power to change them.

P.S., this is very, very common in new parents. Read this link and see if it rings true. Good luck!
posted by Brittanie at 3:39 PM on March 28, 2007

Children with eidetic memories (the sort that when you show them a picture one small feature of which is a stack of chairs, and then ask them a few hours later, they can tell you without difficulty exactly how many are in the stack) often report that going over an eidetic image in their mind and naming each element of it will allow them to forget it.

And that may be exactly how (and why) Stephen King does it, perhaps.
posted by jamjam at 3:47 PM on March 28, 2007

beta-adrenergic blockers are widely available and safe for a number of indications. Some psychiatrists have been experimenting with them to deal with post traumatic stress disorder.

The idea is, after memory recall, the memory has to be reconsolidated. If there's a problem reconsolidating, one can lose that memory (to a certain extent, at least).

So PTSD patients are given an acute dose of beta-blocker and asked to recall the traumatic experience in as much detail as possible and the blocker interferes with reconsolidation and thus relieves some of the impact of the memories.

Phase 3 human trials were supposed to be finished any day now, but I'm not "in the know" so I don't know if it's an effective therapy. Results will probably become available within a few months (if the results are staggeringly good), a year or so (if the results are good) or in about a year and half.
posted by porpoise at 4:21 PM on March 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

Thirteenkiller linked to my previous question, prompted by the same incident. I did the same thing, visual images and overwhelming anxiety kept building until I wasn't functional. There were very very good suggestions in that thread and now, a full week later, I'm doing alright.

I don't agree that it's anything to do with OCD, in my case there was an element of PTSD due to issues from my own childhood as well as the horror of seeing how evil truly does walk in this world. I immediately shut the images off in my head when they would come up, got up and walked around, my family donated to the victim's family and we also spent some time at a children's hospital located here in town. I also stopped watching local news since it's the lead story here (the area is just north of where I live and is in our tv viewing area) and basically did a lot of "happy pretty kitty" type internet surfing.

It's just awful, especially when we have young children the same gender or nearly the same age, to see things like this happen. In our case, it has made us become more proactive and volunteer to help change laws in our state to protect everyone's children.
posted by hollygoheavy at 5:00 PM on March 28, 2007

I also struggle with this.

Any newspaper article I read about an abused/murdered child results in days of mental anguish about it. My only recourse has been to NOT READ THE ARTICLE, or NOT LISTEN TO THE REPORT. Not that I'm empathetic, I just can't stand the details and the mental imagery that follows.

I force myself to move onto something else once I've skimmed the headlines.

I hope this helps you.
posted by luckyshirl at 6:22 PM on March 28, 2007

I work as an EMT and quite often see things that the general public would consider to be horrific.

What works for me is understanding that we do the best that we can do in the situation. In this case, it's a news story that while horrible, was totally outside of your realm.

Focus on positive things in life instead. Do what you can to make a positive difference in someone elses life instead.
posted by drstein at 7:32 PM on March 28, 2007

Sounds like you have a combination of creative mind + photographic memory + obsessive disorder. Sort of thing that can be a blessing and a curse, huh?
posted by ArchBr at 8:07 PM on March 28, 2007

I'm a creative type with a photographic memory myself, and I learned a long time ago that I'm a sponge for the energy around me. If I'm around stressed out people, I get stressed out. If I'm around depressed people I get depressed. When I lived in LA during the riots & after 9/11, I absorbed all of the images that I was surrounded by and got really depressed. Watching the television news and seeing things over and over, I would dream about them and the negativity would get under my skin. I've learned to develop coping mechanisms to avoid that happening.

Now I tend to filter what I take in. I stay informed and in the loop about the world, but I avoid television news, for example. I read all of my news online. That way I can choose what I want to absorb & I can view the news from different perspectives. I can read things without that feeling that I'm overwhelmed by them. Plus, I am given the ability to choose whether or not I want to look at a video, it's not all just thrown at me but I have the option. I very rarely watch violent movies or television anymore -- there is some imagery that I've found I'm simply better off not having a mental picture of. Somehow reading about horrible things doesn't get to me, but visual imagery really can stick with me.

I still have times where I struggle with this. I just have to limit my exposure to things that upset me. I've given this advice to other people too, and I've had people argue with me that I'm keeping myself out of the loop by not watching television news but I beg to differ. I'm better informed than a lot of my friends. I learn more details by reading a well-written news story than by watching CNN. I mean honestly, if you watch a news report about a horrific explosion, do you really NEED to watch that same footage of that horrific explosion replayed thirty more times in your face to grasp that there was a horrific explosion? NO. You know what happened, and it didn't happen thirty times. So seeing it once is more than enough to get all of the information you need. That image being repeated isn't necessary for you.

As for how to get the bad stuff out of your head, everybody has their own method. Mine is music. When I'm stressed out, I'll put on jazz cds and sing along. When you're singing old Irving Berlin songs along with Blossom Dearie & Ella Fitzgerald at the top of your lungs, you really can't be thinking about the horrors of the world. It starts to look like a sweet, romantic place. At least until the song is over. :)
posted by miss lynnster at 11:35 PM on March 28, 2007

Oh, and also... I've learned to distance myself from things better. I used to feel too much empathy. It was like every news story I saw could've been me. I had to stop myself from doing that and become a bit more detached and realistic. I started noticing the tv news having stories about how frozen yogurt could kill you and stuff, and I had to stop myself and think, "This is getting ridiculous. I am not going to be killed by frozen yogurt. I am not going to die in a terrorist explosion. I am not going to get carjacked." If you spend your life obsessed with worrying about that stuff... you don't have time to live it and enjoy it. And if I AM going to be killed in a terrorist explosion, I sure as hell want to enjoy myself before that happens. I don't want to spend my whole life sitting around worrying, being paranoid & depressed. I deserve better than that.
posted by miss lynnster at 11:43 PM on March 28, 2007

Another tiny, practical suggestion for tonight: do some meditation-like activity that blanks the mind. The one I'm using these days is Planarity. It's a very simple game like untangling string. Do a few levels, and when the levels are at a level of complexity you like, you can just hit "scramble vertices" (the circled arrow icon at bottom right) rather than "I'm done; next level", to get a new puzzle of that complexity. I like level 4, not taxing at all, but involving enough that I forget about other things.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:46 PM on March 28, 2007

If the images bother you that much, you might consider hypnosis. I have no personal experience with it, but it's something I would be willing to try. Perhaps the hypnotist will be able to figure out why you are imagining such scenarios and possibly get you to stop doing so.
posted by HotPatatta at 8:28 AM on March 29, 2007

I agree with many of the above in filtering, skimming or avoiding the news at times ( or alot of the time). I have never been able to "empty my mind" at will but came up with a more practical solution for the immediate times- say at bedtime or 3am - which is, of course, the absolute worst for those hideous memories or thoughts. When the thoughts start overwhelming me, I start picturing & focusing on the image of white sheets hanging on a clothesline; flowing in the breeze - just white sheets. Another one is a white wall - just a white wall; another is white curtains in a breeze. You get the 'picture'. I realize this sounds silly, but it does work, most of the time. But you must focus only on that one image and THAT does take work.
posted by ranchgirl7 at 10:21 PM on March 29, 2007

Helped me to stop watching the news or reading news sites, unless I go straight to the politics/technology pages. I couldn't handle reading stories like that.
posted by theredpen at 9:49 AM on March 30, 2007

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