Memory is malleable. Our brains can sometimes take traumatic memories out of context so that occasionally we believe life’s bad experiences were worse than they really were. But our minds can be trained to let go of unwanted and negative thoughts by putting them in a new context. Hypnotherapists increasingly use imagery and suggestion to change the way we perceive bad experiences, creating emotional distance and helping clients regain ownership of their emotions.
Certain songs or smells can make people feel nostalgic about past events, while for others they can serve as an unwelcome reminder of sadness and loss.
Everything is linked to memory – every thought, every idea, every feeling, every emotion, has it’s roots somewhere in our memory banks. That’s why we often experience the same physical feelings when we are reminded of people or events. Every thought or emotion has a physical constituent, whether it be tightness in the chest, butterflies in the stomach, or breaking out in a rash! Very often the expectation of these physical symptoms occurring can change our behaviour – we may find ourselves avoiding certain social situations or take a different route home.
Memories are idiosyncratic to an individual because everyone has a slightly different view of the world, and unique to a specific moment.
Of course memories of traumatic events are painful because of the very nature of the event, and these kind of events often seem worse than they really were when you relive them (ask any war veteran) because we only remember the event itself rather than the circumstances in which it happened.
All painful memories are the result of peak experiences, for example being attacked by a large vicious dog, being involved in a road accident or a toxic and abusive relationship. The result of this is that traumatic memories hurt more than we should allow. Dr. Dabney Ewin, a respected pioneer of hypnosis in America, told patients ‘No one can hurt you emotionally without your subconscious permission…’ and he was right.
However, a new study has shown people can diminish harmful memories of past experiences by changing how they think about the context of those memories. The study’s findings could especially help people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The results of the research, carried out at Dartmouth and Princeton and also at University College London (UCL) should be of interest to therapists, and not just hypnotherapists. The findings help to explain why some therapies for conditions such as PTSD are working well – it could even mean that even the most unpleasant memories could be intentionally forgotten.
Researchers at UCL placed 20 volunteers in an MRI scanner and showed them pairs of pictures, some of which included negative content, such as pictures of serious injury as well as neutral pictures which were of mundane objects or scenes.
Participants were better at remembering the negative pictures, but not as good at remembering the neutral ones, when shown alongside a negative one. Furthermore, the brain areas involved in storing the negative content were more active than the areas involved in storing the mundane content, which were less active. The result of this effect is that traumatic memories can often be made worse in people’s heads. The hippocampus is a crucial brain region for forming associations so that all aspects of the event can be retrieved together.
The researchers claim this means it is possible that people are more likely to remember bad or traumatic events out of context, forgetting any neutral memories formed at the same time.
A major problem with memory is that if a traumatic event is not stored in its appropriate context, individuals may go on to experience intrusive images of the event – images that may also be accompanied by intense feelings of distress similar to those experienced at the time of the original event, commonly known as ‘flashbacks,’ a painful phenomenon where it appears the same events are happening again in the present.
The findings could have implications for treating PTSD, a condition of persistent mental and emotional stress occurring as a result of injury or severe psychological shock.
People with PTSD often have disturbed sleep and constantly and vividly recall experiences, complete with vivid intrusive images as well as dulled responses to other people and to the outside world in general.
Therefore, the importance of getting the client to recognise and understand the correct context of the event cannot be underestimated.
There are things clients can do that will help change the meaning of memories. In other words, by altering the context of the memory, clients can create the emotional distance necessary to make the memory less painful.
To stop negative thoughts coming back to haunt you, try and change the context of the memory. For example, if you associate a particular song with a break-up, listen to the song in a new and happier environment. Try listening to it as you exercise at the gym, or during a night spent with friends. By doing this, your brain will start to associate with more positive feelings. Or, if a memory of a scene from a horror film haunts you, try watching the same scene during the daytime, maybe with a friend who laughs a lot.
Or go and see a good therapist.