Both good and bad memories comes with the territory of life. One day, it will gonna hit you so hard and the next, forgotten, perhaps to be recalled at a later date. Some memories linger or recur often, particularly the traumatic ones. People speak of being “haunted” by their memories and the emotions they dredge up — some pleasant, even joyful, others painful and damaging.
A distressing memory might be experienced physically as aches, pains or fatigue. One explanation is that when an intense memory is activated, the brain sends signals via chemicals that are picked up by receptors found on the surface of our cells. The body may actually be capable of storing the chemical traces of memories in muscle tissue which, when stimulated, can activate strong emotions.
Bad memories often arise when our emotional state is already compromised — when we are feeling down, stressed or fatigued. We tend to remember unpleasant things when we are already in a compromised mood because that’s how we were when they happened.
Physical objects can also trigger memories. We often hang onto things we’d like to save for our children — so they’ll remember. Getting rid of old things is often complicated by the memories attached to them. Particularly painful can be the belongings of a loved one who has passed. But things can also be consoling, bringing back fond memories.
Memories can be the spark of creativity — inspiring us to write novels and poems, paint pictures or enliven social gatherings with great stories — but they can also lead us to some dark places. If not managed and dealt with in a healthy way, memories of past trauma, illness, abuse, disaster or tragedy can cause lasting emotional and behavioral problems, as well as physical illness.
When overwhelmed with subjective memory and emotion, how can we best maintain our objectivity? Here are some simple tips to help you keep things in perspective.
Recognize that memory is history.
We study history to learn about our world, and ourselves and, most importantly, to avoid repeating past mistakes. Without memory, we would repeat the same mistakes over and over again.
Keep a journal.
Writing out the thoughts, feelings and emotions can be therapeutic, helping you exorcise the memory or understand why it is affecting you.
Listen to what you are telling yourself.
Traumatic memories engender negative thoughts. Try to replace these negative thoughts with more encouraging talk.
If a memory is haunting you, don’t be hard on yourself.
It may be a sign that you need more time to heal. Give yourself this time.
Engage in healthy behavior and establish good routines,
such as eating healthy meals at regular times and exercising. You might consider taking time off from the demands of daily life to focus on activities you really enjoy.
Face the memory
Sometimes going to a site associated with a difficult memory, whether it’s a grave, memorial site or church, can aid in the healing and/or grieving process. Engaging in a private or public ritual can also be therapeutic. Ask a friend to help you if you don’t want to do it alone.
Know your own history
How have you coped with difficulties in the past? What worked and didn’t work? Avoid those things that didn’t work well, and consider whether or not the techniques that did work can be applied to your current situation.
Ask for support from people who will listen and empathize. If you have limited support system, you might want to seek out a support group to share with people who have had similar experiences.
Get help if you think you need it
If you’re concerned that your reactions are interfering too much with your daily life, talk with a mental health professional. They may have ideas for coping that hadn’t occurred to you.