One of the reasons our traumas feel so bad is that we use emotionally heightened language when we talk about them. Certain words trigger emotions more than other words.
If you find yourself freaking out about something that happened, here’s a technique you can use to calm down: Write down your story. Pretend you are the most boring person in the universe, and you’re writing the story of what happened. The rules are to avoid proper names, possessives, and words that are emotionally charged.
Here’s an example:
“There was a person whom I had seen in person and talked to. We also touched. Then we lived under the same roof. Then we started talking less. Then we didn’t talk anymore and I live in a different place than I did. The end.”
That’s the story of a breakup. Isn’t it fascinating how boring it sounds when we take out all of the emotional language, sense of ownership, and proper names?
“There was a place that I would go five times a week to make a trade. I was there for a while. In exchange for what I did, a person would give me a currency which I could then trade for other things that I wanted. Then, that opportunity to trade was no longer available. The end.”
That’s the boring version of someone losing their job, and I could barely stay awake reading it.
The use of possessives can cause extra suffering (as in “MY wife left me”). Possessives make us feel possessive and attached. There’s a time to use them, and a time to not use them. Use them when explaining your situation to other people, for the sake of brevity. Don’t use them in your self-talk if it’s hurting you. It could be “a person I was living with.” “A person whose womb I emerged from, many years ago.” Some of them might sound comical, but they’re true (side note: laughter helps with this stuff too). When you make those relationships non-possessive, you can see the story with more objectivity, and more as a witness.
Your story only feels as sensationalized as you describe it to be. The point of this exercise is not to deny feelings or reality, or to act like what happened didn’t affect your life. It’s to reframe it so that you suffer less. It’s an especially good technique when dealing with loss. Loss only occupies your mind when it’s interesting. When loss is boring, you’ll lose interest in thinking about it as much. You’ll find yourself getting excited about other things that are more interesting than the fact that something ended – such as how your new reality is interesting and different.
Try this writing exercise. First, write down your upsetting story in your own words. Let it all out and hold nothing back. Allow yourself to feel whatever emotions you feel, because that’s healthy. Then take a deep breath, and review what you’ve written. Take notice of the possessives (my, our), proper names, and emotionally-charged words that were used. Then rewrite the story using the most boring, dry, matter-of-fact, depersonalized language possible. Avoid using names, possessives, and vague concepts. Write what literally, scientifically happened. Read the story back slowly, aloud if that helps. Do you feel calmer about it? Can you even stay awake during it?
p.s. To take it one step further, remove “I” from the story and use the third person.