How to overcome Bad Memories? – Part I

Overcoming Bad Memories

Let’s begin by defining what bad memories are. Bad memories are memories of events which may trigger sadness, anger, fear, anxiety, embarrassment, etc. I am stating the obvious, right? Well, not entirely, there are memories of adverse events that do not trigger these emotions. For example, memories of events from 10-15 years ago don’t trigger as strong emotions as 5-year-old or a few months old memories.

Time reduces the emotional impact of specific memories. Apart from memories that fade, some memories stay with you for longer. These are usually memories of events that are connected to you more directly. The memory of you embarrassing yourself in front of your crush may still be as potent 20 years later. The recollection of the same crush rejecting you, however, will lose relevance after a while. Of course, this is not the same with everyone or every incident. Some people have such high self-esteem that making a fool of themselves in front of others has no emotional impact on them.

The reason I am pointing all these things out is to show that the emotional impact of memory changes naturally over time. This is because every time you recall a memory, it is rerecorded. This is called Memory Reconsolidation. When you recall a bad memory, the experience of it is naturally less intense than when the event happened. The recollection is then rerecorded with the now less intense feelings. This process repeats each time you recall a memory. The strength of the emotions associated with an event progressively reduces over time, till the recollection becomes emotionally neutral. The memories that buck this trend are memories that are too painful, and people try to suppress the memories instead of fully recalling them.

Psychologists make use of the phenomenon of Memory Reconsolidation in Psychotherapy and one example is the so-called talking cures. This is also why people say talking about a problem helps, because every time you recall a memory, the emotional impact of the event usually decreases.

Why is it important to understand the mechanism underlying the “talking cure”? Well, because now that we know it, we can apply it ourselves and reduce the emotional impact of the memories quicker. Also, now that we understand the mechanism, we can do it without the help of costly professionals, friends, or relatives. It is always good to have emotional support but there are times in everyone’s life when they have only themselves to rely on. Please do not misunderstand this to mean I am dissuading you from seeking help. However, the unfortunate truth is that for many people, good-quality emotional support is not available.

Anyway, knowing all this, how do we reduce the emotional impact of bad memories? There are two ways to alter the emotions associated with a specific memory, namely Memory Neutralization through Emotion Substitution and Memory Reinterpretation. We will start by looking at how the Emotion Substitution technique can be employed for this purpose.

To learn what is Emotion Substitution check out this article

Memory Neutralization through Emotion Substitution

Emotion substitution is a relatively easy way of changing the way you feel about someone, something, or an event. The following are the steps involved in the emotion substitution technique of altering the emotions attached to a memory.

Step 1: Trigger a counter-emotion by thinking appropriate trigger-thought or by exposing yourself to a counter-emotion producing external stimulus.

An example of how a negative or positive emotion can be triggered easily would be by playing music or by watching an emotionally potent movie scene. You can, of course, trigger emotion with another memory or mental picture as we discussed in the previous section on the Emotion Substitution technique. However, in Step 2, you are going to recall the memory you want to alter, so you might find triggering emotion with external stimulus more practical. That said if you personally find it easier to trigger a feeling with a trigger-thought, memory, or mental image, then that is fine too.

What stimuli will work for you depends entirely on your personality and the emotion you are trying to trigger. The type of stimulus I find positive or uplifting may not necessarily have the same impact on you. That said, soothing music makes you feel calm or uplifting music, which makes you feel happy or excited, especially of an instrumental nature is ideal. It is better to not use as trigger-stimuli music with lyrics, especially more extreme forms such as heavy metal or rap. The words of a song can have psychological connections that you may be unaware of, and this is why music with lyrics should be avoided as trigger-stimulus.

Apart from music, you also alter memories while watching movie scenes. A particularly funny or uplifting movie scene can trigger positive counter-emotions in you. The goal here is to trigger an emotion that is opposing to the sentiment you want to counter. If the memory you are trying to alter is sad, use happiness as the counter-emotion. If the recollection you wish to neutralize is a happy one, then use sadness as the counter-emotion.

Do not use unrelated emotions, for example, if you try to counter grief with faith or patriotism, then it won’t work correctly. Unconnected emotions won’t counter each other and will instead get coupled together through classical conditioning. This coupling of unrelated feelings can have unintended side effects. For example, if you attempt to counter sadness with belief or worship, which a lot of people do, all that will be accomplished is, both emotions will get attached. When faith in a specific ideology or religion, and grief get coupled together, it can manifest as extreme behavior.

Another way to trigger positive emotions is by simply smiling or laughing. Theories of Emotion in the field of psychology tell us that physical cues created by a feeling such as a smile also work in reverse. What does that mean? If you smile, even without reason to do so, then your brain will release a jolt of happy chemicals into your bloodstream. This is one of the principles behind the laughter therapy. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world go to parks as a part of laughter clubs and practice fake laughing as a group because it makes them happier. So, if the other methods of triggering emotions don’t work for you then just faking loud laughter or even smiling will trigger some positive feelings. The intensity of the happy feeling triggered will be proportional to the scale of your fake laugh.

Step 2: Recall the memory you wish to alter

Think about whatever you want to modify in its entirety, remember all aspects of it. Do not spend so much time on a recollection that the emotions from it start to build up and overwhelm the counter-emotion. The key here is to overwrite the feelings associated with the remembrance with new, less intense emotional information. If the original emotional state of the memory is reasserted, then the purpose of the technique is defeated, and the emotional intensity won’t decrease. One easy way to accomplish this is to recall bad memories while watching a video of your favorite jokes from a good comedy movie. The positive feelings from the film’s humor will then counter and rewrite whatever pain used to be there.

If you substituted the emotion and recalled the memory, then the recollection will be re-recorded by your brain, with the new emotional information. Therefore, only recollect a memory as long as your current emotional state is less intense than the emotions initially associated with the recollection.

Step 3: Perform another Emotion Substitution

Now it is time to wipe the memory out of your mind, by shifting your emotional attention to something else. Perform another Emotion Substitution so that you don’t end up dwelling on the memory. Dwelling on the recollection can reinforce initial emotions, so it is best avoided. However, do not use the same stimulus, and instead use a different, preferably more potent trigger-stimulus. The trigger-stimulus can be some other strong positive memory or mental image that you find compelling. For example, you can remember some happy occasion with your child, romantic partner, sibling, parents, etc.

Repeat this process once or twice a day until the memory you wish to alter becomes emotionally neutral. How long it takes is entirely dependent on the initial emotional intensity of the recollection and the strength of the counter-emotion you used. You don’t need to try to make a memory completely emotionally neutral in one session, as this would be difficult. You should progressively reduce the emotional impact of the recollection over multiple sessions. Over time your ability to rewrite memories will improve. At the stage I am in, I can rewrite any memory in one go and with little effort.

Advisory: Please keep in mind the previous warnings regarding Emotion Substitution. Do not use the same stimulus over and over again as this will cause Classical Conditioning. In Steps 1 and 3 of each session, you should use different external stimuli or memories to trigger emotions. Using different stimuli will prevent Classical Conditioning from occurring.

Also Check out the second method for memory alteration that is Memory Reinterpretation.

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