Getting Over It: The Problem of Bad Memories 2

In my last post I discussed the problem of bad memories- how things that happened long ago can still torment us as if they happened only yesterday.

Such memories are not like ordinary memories that fade with time. The troubling memories are stored in a different place where time makes no difference- it’s as if they happened yesterday, even if they really happened many years ago. This is why the traditional advice to “just get over it!” is so unhelpful.

Nowadays people may be told to remember rather than forget. They may be told that they can only “get over” their bad memories by picking over them in great detail. They may have counselling for this purpose, or attend groups, or record their memories in diaries- many of which can be seen on the internet. These diaries typically go on and on without any change in how the person feels about what happened. Likewise with counselling, the person may have many sessions and each time comes out of the counsellor’s office feeling worse than when they went in.

As soon as they start digging up the details of the past they are plunged right back into the memory as if it was happening right now. That’s because these memories do not fade with time- they are always fresh and vivid. Nothing has changed. And when a memory feels like it happened yesterday, it’s natural to fear that it could happen again tomorrow. That’s how these memories can affect our whole attitude to life going forward. When we see or hear or even smell anything connected to the bad memory, powerful emotions are triggered before we have time to think or even notice what we’ve seen or heard.

This is because of how our brains are put together. The brain has separate areas for different things. There are seeing and hearing areas (visual and auditory cortex), an area for powerful emotion (amygdala) and a thinking area (frontal cortex). The nerves going from the visual and hearing areas to the emotion area carry messages faster than the nerves going to the thinking area. This is why we react before we’ve had time to think.

Fortunately there are effective ways of dealing with bad memories. I will discuss these in my next post.