We all have at least one memory that makes us cringe, but some bad memories are more than just sources of embarrassment or mild grief. Bad memories can plague the mind, serving as a ready source of nightmares, self-doubt, and sadness.
For some people who have experienced serious trauma such as military combat or rape, bad memories lead to posttraumatic stress. Researchers at the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois hope to lessen the negative effects of bad memories, and their research suggests there’s a better way to move past bad memories.
The Effects of Bad Memories
It’s easy to conceive of a bad memory as just a small annoyance, but some bad memories can be life-altering. Memory plays a role in everything from self-esteem to how we conduct our romantic relationships. The worst bad memories can even make it difficult to function. People with posttraumatic stress experience intrusive flashbacks, during which they relive the traumatic event. They may also experience trauma via nightmares, and stimuli such as smells and sounds that remind them of the memory can reignite feelings of fear and trauma. For the 7.7 million Americans who experience posttraumatic stress every year, bad memories are much more than just an annoyance.
Anastasia Pollock, LCMHC, a GoodTherapy.org trauma Topic Expert, emphasizes the role of memories in trauma, explaining, “In my own experience working with clients dealing with trauma, I have found it necessary to help them develop positive neural networks in order to counteract the negative networks created by trauma, by focusing on times in their lives when they felt safe, in control, or good about themselves.”
Getting Over Bad Memoriesemotion associated with a memory makes the memory more pronounced and less difficult to forget. But thinking about the context of the memory—the setting, weather, who was there—can help reduce the effects of bad memories. People have a tendency to dwell on negative emotions associated with bad memories, and this can contribute to the development of depression and posttraumatic stress. Focusing on the context of a memory makes it harder to ruminate on negative emotions.
Dr. Sunda Friedman TeBockhorst, a GoodTherapy.org trauma expert, says that getting “stuck” in a bad memory can lead to posttraumatic stress. “This development fits nicely with what we already know about how memories continue to cause distress well after an event. One of the primary working hypotheses about how trauma-related problems develop is that traumatic memories get ‘stuck’ in the emotional part of the brain and aren’t stored in other areas of the brain that can make sense of them. So, it stands to reason that having these two areas of the brain ‘talk’ to each other will defuse the negative charge of the memory and facilitate a more adaptive storage and retrieval process of that specific memory. By focusing on the specifics of an emotionally-laden memory, you can get these two areas of the brain to ‘talk’ to each other and ‘unstick’ the memory,” she says.
At this point, the research is preliminary and has only shown that focusing on context can reduce the short-term effects of negative memories. The researchers associated with the project hope to eventually find ways to mitigate the long-term effects of negative memories.
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- The numbers count: Mental disorders in America. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/the-numbers-count-mental-disorders-in-america/index.shtml
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