How to Stop Painful Memories from Haunting You

None of us get out of this life unscathed.

If we’re lucky, we only experience a few deep wounds and even fewer “my life changed in a second” moments.

I’m not trying to be a downer, but I’m here to tell you to expect pain as part of life. Big pain. It’s normal. Don’t be too surprised when it shows up. Enduring the loss of a child, surviving a bout with cancer, going through a messy divorce, or being the victim of violent crime are all too common. You can’t have the good without the bad.

However, the painful memories of the bad don’t have to consume your life and haunt you forever.

I know. I’ve had more than my share of pain.

After taking care of my brother as he wasted away and died of AIDs, the end of my 18-year marriage to my high school sweetheart in an ugly divorce, and years of things not working out, and being flat-out disappointed with life, I tried to kill myself by swallowing pills. Because I wasn’t found in time, the drugs went all the way through my system. I woke up from a coma a week later seriously brain injured. Then, my ex-husband sued me for custody of our sons, won and immediately moved out of state with them. (You can read the full story here.)

While healing from the suicide attempt, I realized that I’d been torturing myself with all of the painful memories from my past. I was amazed to see that I was doing it to myself! While this point may be apparent to some, it was a huge “aha”  moment for me. I also realized that if I was doing it, I could stop it.

And I did just that.

I’m not suggesting that you can magically make the pain go away or the horrible memories disappear. I’m suggesting that you can choose not to torture yourself and make the pain grow stronger until it swallows you like I did and so many others do.  It really came down to me making the decision not to do this to myself anymore.

A Memory Is Changed Each Time You Remember It

Because of neuroplasticity, the ability of our brains to change both form and function based on repeated behaviors, emotions, and even thoughts, the more I dwelled on the sad memories, the more I reinforced them in my brain. Synapses, the connections between neurons, get more sensitive and new neurons grow when activated repeatedly together as happens when recalling a memory over and over.

Your brain also adds a subjective tint to your memories by subconsciously factoring in who you are and what you believe and feel at the time of recollection. At the most basic level, a memory is made up of the slight shifts in certain synapses within a specific sequence which incorporate the various elements that make up that memory. Every time you recall it, your brain reconsolidates this process incorporating and filtering it through who you are at the time of remembering. Each time you call up a memory, it is changed and grows more charged.

So, like the fish tale that grows with each telling, our memories mutate and take on more emotional charge each time we recall them. In his book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer writes:

Our memories are not like fiction. They are fiction.

So, the more depressed I got, the darker my memories became.

Pairing Painful Memories with Positive

The good news is that the reverse is also true. Neural connections that are relatively inactive wither away. You can consciously influence the process in reverse in a positive way so that the memories become less negatively charged. I made the memories stronger and sadder, and I could make them weaker and more loving.

Through mindfulness and meditation, I learned to become aware of and take control of my thoughts and mind. By realizing and working with my subconscious influences and consciously choosing which ones I allowed to impact me and intentionally inserting new ones, I changed my past.

Not literally, of course. But by pairing more positive thoughts and emotions with negative memories and feelings and modifying my perspective about past events, I changed the way I experienced them in the present.  With repetition, this practice altered the memories and neuronal paths in my brain.

The goal here is not to resist painful memories and grasp at positive ones instead. That’s almost impossible and leads to its own kind of suffering. The goal is to feel your emotions and acknowledge a painful memory, but then to consciously pair it with a more positive thought, memory, or feeling. This way, when your brain stores the memory, positive material gets associated with it.

Research shows that negative memories are especially vulnerable to being changed after they’re recalled. Over time, through neuroplasticity,  this practice will weaken the negative charge of the memories.

In his book, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, Rick Hanson writes:

To gradually replace negative implicit memories with positive ones, just make the positive aspects prominent and relatively intense in the foreground of your awareness while simultaneously placing the negative material in the background….

Because of all the ways your brain changes its structure, your experience matters beyond its momentary, subjective impact. It makes enduring changes in the physical tissues of your brain which affect your well-being, functioning and relationships.  

You Can Stop The Pain

If your head is filled with painful memories, I want you to know that you can change this. I did.

In any life, there’s always going to be pain, joy, and everything in between. Past, present, and future. Your experience of your life and your brain are shaped by what you choose to focus on. You can torture yourself with pain and anxiety or choose better feeling thoughts and memories.

It really is that simple. Simple, but not easy.

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7 Comments

  1. Michelle Cohen Reply

    Hi there. I like this. Can you provide an example? I recently had a breakup and I am really ruminating on the two times I most regret. One was I had him over the first time and my home was not guest ready… I had a sick cat, and it smelled bad. I have decided that made him.like me less abx the memory brings me to tears. And I was also very emotional one time and I have morphed that to him thinking I am insane. How do I forgive myself? I think about it over and over and feel hopeless about deserving love. I make so many mistakes, I must be unlovable. How do I change my thinking on these memories.

  2. Well done Debbie…you came through some terribly experiences and found ways to deal with them that allowed your body and spirit to heal. that’s truly awesome. I think by intentionally intervening with new thoughts is key in making changes that last.

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