Most everyone has at least one traumatic memory embedded in their brains. One that still resonates for me was the time my mother left me alone when I was six years old to take the babysitter home. When I looked apprehensive, she told me not to worry. “I’ll be right back,” she said, smiling brightly, and drove off. As it got dark, I became more and more frightened that something had happened to her and she wasn’t coming back.
By the time she returned I was totally terrified. She found me standing outside wailing. She scolded me and took me inside. Years later, whenever my wife was late coming home I would become worried and anxious. My heart would begin to pound, and more than once when she was particularly late, I had a full-blown panic attack.
I know I’m not alone. Some have memories from a car accident, a rape, a natural disaster, a violent parent, a drunk husband, a hospital stay, an assault, the horrors of war. Experiences like these are more common than you might think, with an estimated 60% or more of Americans who have experienced at least one of these at some point in life. Not all of these memories cause people to experience trauma later in life, but they can cause problems for many, and for some they can be debilitating. People with posttraumatic stress (PTSD) can become hypersensitive, with nerves on a permanent state of high alert. Fear and anxiety recur without warning, and nightmares can ruin sleep.
Memories and Trauma
But now there are simple, yet effective, ways to actually erase the traumatic emotions that often accompany these memories so that they can finally be put to rest. Many people can do this work on their own. For more difficult traumatic memories, working with a therapist who specializes in healing trauma can be helpful.
In his book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, neuropsychologist Rick Hanson says, “Your brain was wired in such a way when it evolved, it was primed to learn quickly from bad experiences but not so much from the good ones.” It’s why traumatic memories so often stick in our brains, while positive memories seem to slip away. “It’s an ancient survival mechanism that turned the brain into Velcro for the negative, but Teflon for the positive,” Hanson concludes.
Fortunately, new findings from the field of affective neuroscience can help people heal traumatic memories that can contribute to PTSD, depression, bipolar, and even Alzheimer’s. One of the things we are learning about memories is critically important: Though the brain is particularly good at recording bad memories, they are not permanently locked into the brain’s memory banks, as we once thought. Whenever we actively recall a memory, it transforms and becomes vulnerable to modification.
When we recall a memory it becomes a little unstable and for a window of perhaps two or three hours, it’s possible to modify it before it settles down again, or “reconsolidates,” in the brain. That’s why, paradoxically, recalling bad memories can help us heal from old wounds. Reliving traumatic moments again in a condition of safety can help a person disconnect the memory from the painful “alarm” mechanisms that are the source of so much discomfort.
In the book The Archeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions, Jaak Panksepp and Lucy Biven say, “Emotional memories remain forever malleable, subject to influence by future events—through a phenomenon called reconsolidation.” This is the basis of various treatment approaches for healing trauma including prolonged exposure therapy, supportive psychotherapy, emotional freedom techniques (tapping), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), trauma-based cognitive behavior therapy, and MDMA-assisted psychotherapy.
How to HEAL
Based on the latest in neuroscience finds Rick Hanson offers a simple, yet effective, method for rewiring the brain from the negative emotions associated with trauma to the positive emotions associated with health and wellness. In his book, he describes a four step process using the acronym HEAL.
- Have a positive experience.
Step 1 activates a positive mental state, and steps 2, 3, and 4 install it in your brain. In step 1 we notice a positive experience that’s already present in the foreground or background of your awareness. In the example I offered at the beginning, I tuned into an experience where I felt safe and supported, and brought to mind experiences of safety and security.
- Enrich it.
Too often we spend minutes, and sometimes hours and days, ruminating over a negative experience, but we gloss over the positive. Here we take time to deepen the positive experience. I would open myself to the feelings of support I have in my life. I would picture and my wife and friends and the many supports I have, filling my inner conscious with at least 10 to 20 seconds of positive memory.
- Absorb it.
Here we imagine ourselves drinking in the experience. I imagine all my cells being infused with the experience. I feel it sinking into me and becoming part of my brain and all the parts of my being.
- Link positive and negative material.
Hanson describes this as an optional step. We don’t want to become overwhelmed by the negative, but to hold the negative in consciousness while it is infused with the positive. Hanson uses the image of a garden. We imagine the beauty of beautiful flowers we are planting. We become aware of the weeds and gently pull them out so there’s room for growth. He concludes by saying, “Whenever you want, let go of all negative material and rest only in the positive. Then, to continue uprooting the negative material, a few times over the next hour be aware of only neutral or positive things that may have been associated with the negative.
I bought back the memories of being left by my mother and some of the associated experiences of getting anxious whenever someone I cared about was late. Focusing on the negative while activating positive experiences can actually “erase” the fearful feelings from the past. I still remember my mother leaving me alone and being angry with me when she returned, but it doesn’t grab me and shake me up like it used to do and I’m much less anxious when my wife is late coming home.
I describe other techniques for healing old pain in my book, Stress Relief for Men: How to Use the Revolutionary Tools of Energy Healing to Live Well. I often use them along with the ones that Dr. Hanson teaches. In this engaging TED talk Dr. Hanson describes how we can rewire the brain for joy and happiness and heal from trauma. In another show he describes how our mind can change the brain from being Velcro for the negative and Teflon for the positive.
Even when traumatic memories don’t reach a level of discomfort associated with PTSD, they can still be destructive. Hanson notes that unresolved trauma “increases inflammation, weakens your immune system, and wears on your cardiovascular system. No one has to live with traumatic memories from the past. They can truly be healed now and forever.
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