Warning: This post could be a bit emotionally painful to read. I apologize in advance.
What’s one of the worst things that has happened to you in your life? Please remember it now. What happened? How did you feel? Keep this in your back pocket and read on.
When Memory Processing Works Well: Dealing with the Hurt
When something bad or stressful happens to you, your brain reacts in the same way it would if you were going through a haunted house. From one part of your brain, your amygdala screams at you. It tells you to fight or run away, then tells you to pay special attention to what’s coming next. Your body gets tense. Adrenaline pumps. Then your pre-frontal cortex steps in, assesses the current context, and tells you to either peace out (or lash out), or keep calm and carry on.
After the bad thing happens, it becomes a memory (in case you forgot, I wrote about the basics of memory in Part 1). Over time and under normal circumstances, people process bad memories, which includes links to emotional parts of the brain: the hippocampus turns fresh memories into long-term memories, ranking them right along with other things that have happened to a person, like eating an ice cream or putting on a coat.
When Memory Processing Goes Wrong: Haunted by the Hurt
Some people can’t process the memory as quickly as the average Jane, and others simply can’t process the memory at all. Sometimes the problem is structural – the hippocampus, which is responsible for long-term storage, may be smaller than normal, so it just doesn’t have the power required of it. The event itself may be extraordinarily awful, or immediately followed by a similarly bad shock. In the end, the brain stores the event in long-term memory, but puts it on a pedestal high above that time you ate ice cream or put on your coat.
Sometimes, a person just can’t stop thinking about that bad thing throughout the day. Other times, during the process of reconsolidation (when the brain strengthens your brain connections and deepens memories), the brain takes the memory out of storage while you’re sleeping. This could explain nightmares. And if the person continues to recall the event in a negative light, then the negative parts of the memory are what the brain preserves most. In any case, the more a person recalls the event, the more the memory gets engraved into the brain.
Because memories are essentially networks of proteins, the person’s brain is physically changed.
So if you think about it, in the case of bad memories, the person is physically scarred.
The Case of That Bad Memory
So pull that Worst-Thing-That-Has-Ever-Happened-to-You-in-Your-Life-or-Close-to-It memory out of your back pocket. (I’m sorry!) Ask yourself these sets of questions:
- Has this moment come back to haunt you in nightmares? Does this moment pop into your mind unbidden at random times during the day when you’re doing mundane tasks?
- Do seemingly unrelated things trigger the memory? Does the memory unreasonably affect the way you make certain decisions today? Do you avoid certain things or people because of it, even if these things and people exist in a context completely different from the event itself?
- What about right now: do you have palpitations right now just thinking about it? Are your muscles tense?
More generally, do you not care about things like you used to?
If your answers are “no” to the above, then congratulations. Your memory’s processing as it should. If you answered “yes” to a few of the above and the event is relatively recent, then you might still be okay. But if you answered “yes” to most of the questions above, then you might have a problem – especially if the thing happened in the distant past.
People who have been accidents, lost loved ones, witnessed violence, or experienced violence themselves are more likely to suffer from anxiety, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or similar conditions than folks who haven’t.
That, however, doesn’t mean that everyone else is walking around with perfectly-functioning memory processing systems. If you have ever gotten some surprising bad news, or if someone you trust betrays you, or if you have gotten verbally abused, or even if your heart has ever been broken, then you could still be suffering – even long after the incident has happened.
Lingering problems (from anxiety disorders to PTSD) resulting from bad experiences (from heartbreak to profound loss) are essentially memory problems.
Most people are walking around with scars that we just can’t see. Most of them will mend naturally over time. But others can’t mend just like that – not by themselves.
Dealing with It
I couldn’t give this post an unhappy ending. So here’s the heartening thing: there are ways to deal. Many ways. Advice is easy to find. None of it, however, is easy to do. The more acute the condition, the wiser it is to get professional and/or spiritual help.
For people with memory problems that fall, more or less, within the normal scope of life, these three things might help:
- Take a Meditation-Style Approach. When the memory comes, let it. Let the memory come, pass through you, then let it go. Do it as many times as it comes. Just keep letting it pass through you. Better yet, go all the way – meditate.
- Use the Monty Python Method. Look on the bright side. Find one (however small or improbable it may be), recall That Bad Thing, and try to “reassign” less bad feelings to the bad memory. Get the help of a friend, your favorite comfort food, and your beverage of choice.* This is effectively like reconditioning yourself and consciously rewriting the memory.
- Avoid and Distract. When all else fails and you find yourself thinking about That Bad Thing over and over again, just say “no” (like, out loud) and think about something else. This is not an ideal and sustainable solution. You probably won’t work it out of your system in a healthy way, but at least you won’t be eaten by negative memories all day.
These tactics will still be difficult, but for the less nefarious memory problems, they should still be doable. Could any apply to your Case of That Bad Memory? But details on different ways to deal are for another post another day.
For now, things are about to get very serious…
* I wouldn’t recommend anger beyond the initial knee-jerk, brief need to emote at most. Anger isn’t a long-term solution and could end up being a slippery slope you might not want to go down. Anger is corrosive.