It is obvious that some people repeat over and over very unpleasant memories that continue to upset them for years. They become preoccupied with a bad experience. All kinds of distressing events are remembered--how they were abused, mistreated or unloved as a child; how someone insulted, assaulted, criticized or dumped them; how they themselves did something very wrong; how meaningless, useless and shameful they are; how life has screwed them over; how they hate someone, some event, or some group, and so on. For a few unfortunate people, the tenor of their entire life is determined by a seemingly uncontrollable obsession with these awful memories or thoughts. Yet, other people have had equally horrible experiences--war, abuse, deaths, sins--and put the memories behind them; the bad memories are not forgotten but they are avoided or seldom remembered and apparently can remain harmless.
The belief-system that underlies the thinking of most psychotherapists and lay persons since Freud, is that highly disturbing memories need to be expressed, even if it means digging them out of the unconscious, usually in great and excruciating detail. If unexpressed, according to this theory, these toxic, partly repressed memories will seep out in the form of anxiety, various psychological symptoms (OCD, panic reactions, addictions, depression...), physiological disorders (impaired immune system, asthma, fatigue, pain...), and/or in personality disorders (suspiciousness, passive-aggressiveness, dependency, Borderline impulsiveness, social withdrawal...). The idea that bad thoughts and feelings need to be expressed is certainly not a new idea.
On the basis of this express-your-feelings theory, treatment is often directed towards improving our memories of unpleasant events, e.g. using psychoanalysis, insight therapy, non-directive therapy, TIR, journals, autobiographies, hypnosis, and many other methods. These are not quick methods but one can understand the rationale for uncovering the festering sore, detail by detail, thus, aiding healing presumably by sharing with someone, understanding, and thinking though life's trauma.
There are many life histories taken during therapy that support the notion that fully or partly repressed memories, often terrible abuse, are indeed associated with a wide variety of long-term psychiatric disorders and difficulties relating with others and with one's self. Actually, the data is very clear that abused children, regardless of whether they forget or have crystal clear memories of the trauma 22222k106w tic events, suffer a wide variety of psychiatric disorders as adults. It is not always true that bad memories per se lead to psychiatric problems. Just because a bad memory is correlated with adult problems doesn't prove the cause. But if the psychological turmoil as an adult isn't caused by remembered or repressed experiences, then what are the causes? We don't really have other explanations that quickly come to mind but there are certainly possible additional explanations. For example, there is compelling evidence that childhood abuse results in significant physiological changes in the brain and nervous system (Teicher, 2000). It is possible that these trauma-induced "brain alterations" could be responsible for many of the life difficulties during adulthood--and, in that case, memories would only be the initial causal factors. Another possible theory is that an individual's genetic or physiological make up, such as a quick temper or depressive tendencies, cause both the personality traits that contribute to childhood stress or trauma and result in assorted psychiatric disorders as an adult, i.e. it isn't the memories of a bad childhood that directly cause the adult problems, both just arise from the same genetic causes.
So, in summary, it seems that some people suffer miserably because they have repressed and can't remember horrible life experiences and some other people have miserable lives because they can't forget their awful experiences--they are upset by constantly remembering bad memories. Misery can certainly be caused in many ways. However, there are many people who cope with life pretty well even though they can, when they want to, remember well their terrible life experiences. And, there are probably happy, well-adjusted people who have partly or totally repressed awful occurrences. Clearly, we psychologists and psychiatrists know relatively little about these happy-in-spite-of-bad-experiences phenomenon because these well adjusted people are unlikely to seek treatment. So, how can we stop bad memories?
to all this is some recent research about "Suppressing Unwanted Memories
by Executive Control." in Nature (March 15, 2001) by an
Isn't it likely that many people have had... and remember... a bad experience, but they just don't think much about it or it becomes an available memory that seldom comes to mind?
course, forgetting paired words, as in
is more discussion of the role of thoughts in determining our feelings in Faulty Perceptions.
As mentioned there, research has shown that persons who continued to suffer
intense prolonged stress following a serious trauma had many more intrusive
disturbing thoughts about their experiences than persons with the same
traumatic history but experienced less stress. So, is it good to try to forget
bad experiences--just put them out of your mind? Well, other well-known
research psychologists, e.g. Wegner (1989) and Pennebaker (1991), have reported
results different from the
recent 2002 news report by Dr. Judith Hosie (email@example.com) and Dr.Alan
Milne at the
cognitive-behavioral researchers, seeing things more as
Peretz Lavie, a sleep and trauma researcher at the Technion-Israel Institute of
Technology, doesn't believe in treating trauma survivors (Holocaust and war) by
having them recount or relive the trauma over and over. He advocates "leaving
the memories behind." He cites some evidence for his approach: better
adjusted survivors remember fewer of their dreams than poorly adjusted
survivors and control subjects do, suggesting repression of traumatic
experiences is healthy. Also, students in
There are things about memory you should know. There is ample evidence, as mentioned later, that memories are often inaccurate...parts are forgotten, parts are added, memory segments from different times are all mixed up, memories are simply distorted to meet our own emotional needs, parts are often changed to make us look good and innocent, and so on. In short, memories can't be entirely trusted, at least not to the extent that we should allow them, without questioning and/or confirmation, to be used to make our lives miserable. Memories may not reflect what actually happened... and certainly our assumptions about other people's motives and intentions in our memories are often wrong. Someone else being there and experiencing our "bad experience" would perhaps have an entirely different reaction to it.
Given the fallibility of our memories, if you are frequently bothered by thoughts and memories of a bad time in your past (which makes you sad, mad, self-critical, hopeless, guilty...), what should you do? We can't give a simple clear answer. Therapists will provide, for a fee, their favorite method and confidently give you an explanation of why it should work. Here is my advice (worth what you are paying for it (:-). I suspect that all approaches are effective sometimes--with certain people, with certain problems, and at certain times. Since researchers haven't yet discovered the best method for specific conditions, I'd start self-helping with the quickest, easiest approach, which is probably a simple behavioral method. Check out Disrupt the Unwanted Behavior, Method #10 in chapter 11. If this quick thought-stopping approach doesn't seem appropriate or if it doesn't work for you, then move on to other methods as needed:
I'd then try to "put the bad memory... scary experience, horrendous
injustice, deeply regretful, terrible loss, infuriating incident, embarrassing
moment... behind you." Try using
Note: I am not implying that your should forgive the person who has hurt you. I am not even suggesting here that you try to understand the harmful situation through determinism. Those may be good ideas, but here I'm simply suggesting trying to avoid the unpleasant thoughts so you can possibly feel better and use your time more profitably. Maybe you can gradually put the incident behind you. That's all.
Note also: This bit of advice about "forgetting" assumes you no longer need the energy aroused by vividly remembering the wrongs in the past in order to build up the drive necessary to correct any still existing wrongs. As a source of determination to change some situation, the upsetting thoughts may be serving a good purpose (for a while, not forever).
(2) If forgetting hasn't worked in a couple of weeks, then I'd try some other cognitive methods to reduce the harmfulness of the repetitive or upsetting thoughts. Rather than repeat myself, please refer to chapter 14 for many cognitive methods. Also, much of chapter 6, while focusing on depression, discusses many cognitive approaches to reducing sadness by increasing rationality--the basic ideas underlying the change methods are the same, regardless of what emotions are upsetting you.
Simply learning more about the nature of memories can be a cognitive approach. For a person suffering a serious wound based on memories he/she believes to be totally accurate, just developing some doubt about the validity or completeness of those memories might radically change their emotional impact. Contrary to our usual assumption that our memories are accurate, scientific studies have consistently found that memories are almost always inaccurate, often in minor ways but sometimes in major, completely untrue ways. If you have highly upsetting memories or assumptions about causes, it might be healthy to question the accuracy of your memories. Daniel Schacter (2000) in The Seven Sins of Memory provides well researched information about our highly fallible and deceptive memories.
Here is a glimpse of some more research findings: many parts of the actual experiences are simply left out of our memories. At the same time, many totally made-up details are added in our memories. These additions are often immediate embellishments that "complete the story" or provide us with an explanation--a "cause"--of what we saw. Our unique additions, deletions, and distortions usually conform with our personal beliefs and, thus, meet our emotional needs. Faulty memories come in many forms: believing something + or - happened which didn't; believing that something did not happen but it did; believing he/she did something + or - (even a horrible crime) but they didn't; believing they did not do something + or - but they did. Additional studies demonstrate that false memories can be created rather easily (Pickrell & Loftus, 2001). Moreover, parts of memories can be easily changed by suggestive questions, by being told what other people have done, by just being told to "think about it," and by previous or subsequent events.
In general, very negative memories stay with us longer than pleasant memories--the exception to this is that personally embarrassing parts often fade away quickly. In truth, we know relatively little about why some people remember vividly some bad experiences but thoroughly forget others. It probably has to do with emotional needs, pay offs, and personality. Little is also known (scientifically) about how to accurately recover repressed memories. Likewise, we don't know a lot about the wisdom and risks of repressing or recovering bad memories. Therapists have their hunches but the science is limited.
Of course, human memories are an amazing phenomena. But, at the same time, careful study should convince us that memories are seldom if ever the total truth--there are idiosyncratic distortions and omissions. For instance, there are even cultural-family influences on memories--the childhood memories of American and Chinese adults are very different focusing on different aspects of their early lives. Our memories may be our most available and direct view of the past but it could be healthy to recognize that we are seeing our past through a murky, dark, wavy glass. The total picture is almost never available to us.
It might be helpful to find out if others who were there have the same memories. These efforts to corroborate our memories often leads to discovering that others familiar with your history have somewhat different interpretations or impressions--different opinions. Sometimes the memories of others are quite different from ours. In many situations, the consideration of other views could be realistic and healthy. Even the reduction of our certainty of what happened and why it happened might be useful in our search for insight and understanding. See woundology as an example of how people's reactions and social support can influence the content of our memories.
(3) Psychology has developed several ways to reduce the emotional responses associated with a scary situation or object and when unpleasant memories or thoughts come to mind. They include some self-help methods:
In addition, some specialized therapy techniques have been developed in the last decade or two to deal with the emotional reactions lasting long after a trauma. Most have not, as yet, been translated into self-help methods, but that is probably not far off. One of the more promising techniques is TIR, Traumatic Incident Reduction, which utilizes aspects of exposure, desensitization, and non-directive counseling. The client selects a specific traumatic incident that he/she wants to handle better. The therapist simply asks the client to review, without commenting, the event as though it were a videotape in his/her mind. When the silent review is finished, the therapist just asks "what happened?" and the rest of the session (which lasts as long as needed) is devoted to allowing the client to describe the incident and his/her reactions while reviewing it. If there is time, the therapist asks the client to do the same thing again (reviewing the videotape and then describing the event as well as his/her reactions while reviewing it). The therapist doesn't give detailed instructions, the idea is for the client to get comfortable reviewing and describing the traumatic event. After a few sessions done in this manner, the client becomes more and more comfortable with the process. This will lead to attending during the review to different aspects of the trauma situation. Eventually, the client will courageously attend to and describe the more disturbing emotional aspects and the more uncomfortable actions during the event. TIR usually takes 10 to 20 hours spread over several weeks.
If things go well, after several sessions the client will have little or no negative emotions associated with the incident. During the repeated reviewing process, the client will frequently remember another traumatic event. In that case, the other event will also be reviewed and described over and over until the emotional reactions are eliminated. Naturally, as the details of the trauma experiences are explored in this way, new aspects will be discovered--these may be different emotions and feelings, thoughts and needs that had gone unrecognized, and a better awareness of the body's physiological reactions during the event. This enhanced perception of the trauma will often lead to new insights and new ideas about how to cope with similar situations.
It is uncertain if a person can benefit from such a repetitive review process when done alone, without a therapist. Since this often involves a highly emotional situation, I would not recommend it. Yet, the TIR therapist intentionally avoids being directive, encouraging, expressing sympathy, and giving other reinforcing behaviors. So, the client remembers and thinks about the trauma situation over and over in a safe, calm, undemanding setting. In effect, the trauma experience is being desensitized. Keep in mind, research has shown that writing in detail over and over about an emotional experience also reduces negative emotional reactions to the stressful situation (https://mentalhelp.net/psyhelp/chap15/chap15f.htm).
A more self-help oriented method for understanding and soothing intense emotions is Emotions Manager 2000 ($39.95). This is a software program published by Quate Publishing and based, in part, on Rational-Emotive Therapy. Don't expect this CD-ROM to offer quick, easy relief; just like therapy or other self-help methods, it requires daily work for several weeks or months. If that is not your habit or style, then don't buy it. Here is what you input to the program: whenever you have a strong emotion (happy, sad, angry...) in any arena (work, spouse, children, health...) of your life, you enter and store a detailed description of the experience into the program. Then you write out and record your answers to several questions about this emotional situation: What events or thoughts preceded your strong emotion? Were there some positive things about this experience? What is the worst case scenario--what awful things do you think might happen? If the worst things did happen, how could you handle them? That is what you do, so in a couple of months you will have recorded at least 60 and maybe hundreds of intense experiences to study and understand.
The value of the Emotions Manager program really comes in the review and analyze phases. It will enable you to review your recorded emotional reactions by kind of emotion and arena, so you can see if the emotions are changing--stronger or weaker, more or less frequent--and if there are trends and connections. It will print out colored graphs and tables, showing how recent emotions compare to reactions in the same situation 6 months ago. It will help you identify your frequent triggers, your catastrophizing thoughts, your common irrational ideas, and your usual ways of trying to cope. The program does not do the thinking for you and draw conclusions about how to change your thinking and expectations, how to correct irrational ideas and schemas, how to do less awfulizing and more preferring, how to see even unwanted outcomes as "lawful" and the natural outcome of existing complicated events and causes, and so on.
Another wrinkle that some therapists would add would be to ask you to record or remember the dire expectations you had during many, many times you have been upset. Then, six months later record what the actual outcome was, so you can check the accuracy of your awfulizing or catastrophizing. In this way, you use subsequent reality to correct some of your habitually upsetting thoughts.
If you are an introspective person with some compulsive tendencies and/or a love of writing, this method (or something like it) might work very well for you. Anyone this committed to gaining self-understanding and control, might also benefit considerably from consulting with a therapist. Such a detailed record/diary should be useful in therapy. If you are not in therapy, read a Rational-Emotive or Cognitive Therapy book or, at least, read Method #3 near the beginning of this chapter. Most of us need some outside help in identifying our faulty logic and automatic ideas (such as pessimistic or self-critical thoughts) as well as developing new and better ways of thinking or coping, etc.
(4) If none of the forgetting, behavioral, and cognitive techniques have worked after a couple of months of daily effort, then an effort to gain insight into the persistence of the upsetting memory/thoughts/feelings is another choice. Chapter 15 concentrates on self-understanding, including uncovering needs and motivations that one has not been aware of. Just reading and understanding other cases similar to yours could be helpful. But when one seeks new insight, the usual and best approach is to see a therapist specializing in the kind of stress or trauma that you have experienced. In one form or another, insight therapy seeks to establish an absolutely safe place where all thoughts, feelings, needs, wishes... can be explored and disclosed to the therapist (and yourself). Obviously, this is not a quick fix...count on it taking months. Moreover, considering the typical therapist's fee is $100 a session or more and that many people are not covered by insurance, long-term psychotherapy is not a practical solution for many people