Do you have sad or painful memories that return to haunt you time and again? Do you think these thoughts define who you are? Keep you awake at night? Perhaps your whole life has been defined by one negative event that you relive over and over?
Problems arise because our consciousness is unable to distinguish between the actual event and the memories of it. Therefore, the memory becomes the ‘main event’. We add to it; we wonder if things would have been different if we had taken a different course. We associate places and dates with it. We give it labels such as guilt, remorse, grief and blame. Years later, the painful memory has become so embellished that it is embedded in our reality. It’s part of who we are.
Thousands of years ago, in Ancient Greece and right up until recently, it was accepted that the mind-body connection was a given. Then as medical discoveries advanced, doctors considered all illness and disease could be treated with allopathic remedies, i.e. medication.
What Happens When Unhappy Memories Take Over?
There is increasing evidence that becoming a slave to unhappy memories has a detrimental effect on the human body. When we allow negative thoughts to swirl in our minds, it triggers the release of the stress hormone, cortisol from our adrenal glands. This, in turn, inhibits the hypothalamus in the brain from releasing other hormones which restrict the adrenal response. Therefore, negative emotions repeatedly cause this vicious circle of stress. You feel worse, and therefore feel and think more unhappy thoughts.
All this hormonal activity leads to adrenal fatigue, digestive problems and also leaves us susceptible to auto-immune dysfunction. In short, our bodies go into constant defense mode because of the continual triggers of cortisol and adrenalin. Learn more about the process here.
As well as all this, our mental health is also affected. We become fearful, unable to engage emotionally with others. We think that we are doomed to relive the unhappiness forever. Everywhere we go; everyone we see; TV, movies, books, newspapers, social media have the ability to provoke those memories. Often people avoid certain places because of the memory they hold. Dates and anniversaries are the same – as a certain date looms closer, some almost go into lock-down mode.
Positive Benefits of Releasing Painful Memories
Releasing or neutralizing painful memories has increasingly positive effects, both on mental and physical health. The body can return to homeostasis so that healing takes place. We feel calmer, able to do more and be more ‘present’ within. Life is no longer a battle because your brain and body are not going to war.
Mentally, you have made space for new memories and new experiences. You will feel free, lighter and unencumbered. You can go back to places you previously avoided, making sure to focus on those everyday details. Those dates on the calendar will no longer have the power to paralyze you. Yes, you can mark them as significant anniversaries, but they cannot take hold of you. You can even talk about your unhappy memories from a one-step-removed position. You are not trying to erase them, merely calming your response to them. No-one thinks you should forget your most emotional times, but simply to be able to leave the disrupting emotions back in the past where they belong.
Why Memory Suppression Techniques Don’t Work
A few years ago, a standard method of stamping on painful memories was to use suppression techniques. An example of this would be to wear an elastic band on your wrist and to snap it painfully every time you became aware of an unwanted thought. Needless to say, this self-bullying was ineffectual, causing a mere temporary displacement of the memories or negative thinking.
Then we were advised to ‘think positive’. Positive thinking was considered the magic bullet that would heal the world. Unfortunately, telling an unhappy person to change their thoughts from sad to joyful isn’t usually well-received, not to mention nigh on impossible to do.
Memory suppression doesn’t work. It leads to a feeling of failure and anxiety – because the memory will keep coming back, along with the associated emotions and negative labels. Thus the vicious cycle of stress hormone release begins again.
A Simple Technique to Release Unhappy Memories
A simple method to let go of painful memories was devised by Florin Dolcos Ph.D of the Beckman Institute. He carried out a study on two groups of people. The first group was instructed to think of their unhappiest memories and explore the emotions that the memories stimulated. The second group was told again to connect to their unhappiest memories but this time, they were to focus on the details around the memory – where it happened, what the weather was like, who was there, and so on.
Upon measuring the subjects' neurological and verbal responses with MRI scans, Dr. Dolcos and his team discovered that those who had focused on the details around the memory had a lack of adverse neurological feedback. In other words, they felt ‘normal’. The first group had the response predicted: they felt unhappy, and their neurological activity confirmed it. Dr. Locos’ colleague and partner in the study, Ekaterina Denkova, reported, “One thing we found is that when participants were focused on the context of the event, brain regions involved in basic emotion processing were working together with emotion control regions in order to, in the end, reduce the emotional impact of these memories.”
Try it yourself. Deliberately think about something in your past that makes you unhappy. A funeral perhaps, or a relationship break-up. Now reflect on the surroundings, the weather, what you were wearing, your hairstyle, the details of the room, what you ate. You should find that your mind moves smoothly from the central memory, through the trivial details and away. Do this each time and instead of suppressing the painful memory, you can just neutralize it.