Unpleasant, intrusive memories or bad dreams 

Unpleasant, intrusive memories or bad dreams 

Memories of distressing experiences may come into your head in the days and weeks after the event. When you experience something under acute levels of stress your brain works a little differently, which can affect how you remember it afterwards. Your brain then has to sort out, or process, this information to get it stored in the right place. This can result in you re-experiencing the memory in ways that are more distressing or emotional compared to how you experience other memories.

When we sleep, our brain sorts through our memories and experiences, and this means you may also have dreams or nightmares relating to what happened.  For many people, these memories will naturally be processed in the days and weeks following the event. Sometimes, when the stressful situation goes on for a long time, your brain may not start to make sense of it until it’s over, so don’t be surprised if the processing happens some time after the experience.

Things that can help 

If you’re having experiences like this it can be helpful to look around you, to ground yourself in the present moment. Name five things you see, four things you can hear, three things you can smell, two things you can touch and one thing you can taste.

It can help to speak to people you trust about these experiences if you feel ready to do so. It’s likely to be unhelpful if you feel forced or pressured to speak about things, so it’s ok to tell people that you don’t want to speak about things, if that’s how you feel. Some people can find it helpful to write down their experiences or speak to their peers.

If the memories don’t settle down after a few weeks or you’re continuing to find them very distressing, then please get some help. You can contact your GP or find information about the support that’s available on the Find Help section of this site.

If you’re concerned about symptoms of post traumatic stress, one of which is recurring nightmares that are re-living in nature, more information can be found here.

Understanding responses to stress

This article is part of a series aimed at helping you understand responses to stress. Emergency situations, whether national, local, or within your team, are stressful and we want to equip you to manage them. There are a number of reactions that you or your colleagues might find yourself experiencing when faced with this stress, each article in this series is intended to help you overcome these.

You can read the other articles in the series by following the links below.

Feeling numb and detached

A change in my behaviour – avoiding reminders and people

Difficulty concentrating or making decisions

Feelings of guilt or shame

Feeling tense, on edge, or restless

Welcome to the Hub. We hope you’ll find the support you’re looking for. To help us improve the site and make it relevant to you, please take a minute to answer a few quick questions. Thank you.

Give us feedback