Ask the therapist: How do I deal with bad memories that suddenly appear in my mind?

In the “Consulting Therapist” series, I will answer all your questions about mental health and psychology. Whether you are struggling with a mental health condition, coping with anxiety about living conditions, or just seeking the insights of a therapist, you can submit a question. Please pay attention to my answers to your questions in the Healthy Mind newsletter every Friday.

A reader asked

There are a few bad memories in my mind, and I want to forget them. Every time I think about what happened, I cringe. How can I make these things no longer appear in my mind?

Amy answered

Bad memories can be very disturbing. Sometimes, the more we try to push them away, the more they will come back to haunt us. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to deal with bad memories that keep coming up.

Emotional memory leaves a mark

It is not clear from your question what type of bad memory you are dealing with. Perhaps this is a traumatic memory, like a near-death experience. Or, you are recalling some painful (but not necessarily traumatic) moments in your life, such as when you were not invited to a party, or when someone said something that really hurt your feelings.

Either way, we all know that emotional memory will leave a deep mark in our brains. You may not remember the mundane details of your childhood or what you said at a staff meeting two years ago. However, you will remember when you were rejected, scared, or experiencing extreme embarrassment.

Your brain responds differently to highly emotional experiences. When you are faced with a highly emotional experience, the amygdala increases your sensory awareness, which may encode memories more effectively.

Identify your trigger

Have you noticed what seems to trigger your bad memory? Many times, certain sounds, smells or experiences will stimulate our brains to think about certain things.

For example, if you were teased in a cafeteria when you were a kid-you usually eat an orange for lunch-the smell of oranges may trigger your bad memories. Or, if you are in a war zone, loud noises (such as fireworks) may put your body into panic mode.

When you identify triggers, you can decide how to respond to them. You might think that it is easier to avoid things that trigger bad memories.

Or, you may learn that it is easier to respond to these memories when you know why they suddenly appear in your brain. Seeing that they are not as random as you think may help you feel better in control. Tell yourself, “I remember it now because what I saw reminded me of that time in my life”, and it might also make you feel better.

You can also start to associate these things with pleasant memories. For example, if you are triggered by the smell of oranges, you might start eating oranges while engaging in fun activities. This may help your brain begin to associate citrus scents with positive emotions.

Write facts in the diary

You may find that the more you try to suppress a bad memory, the more you will think about it. This is why exposure therapy may help.

In the case of post-traumatic stress disorder, someone has experienced a traumatic experience that causes nightmares, flashbacks, and other symptoms that interfere with daily life, and therapists often use exposure therapy to help them recover.

This may involve talking about the experience until it no longer feels so scary.

Whether you are struggling with unpleasant memories or a comprehensive traumatic experience, exposure therapy can help you solve the problem.

You may find it helpful to record your experience in a diary. However, you may want to stick to the facts of the incident. Rather than knowing deeply about your feelings or how terrible your feelings are, it is better to describe the facts as objectively as possible.

This may help reorganize how your brain makes memories, and can help you not be so frustrated when recalling these memories at other times.

Talk to the therapist

It may also be a good idea to talk to a licensed mental health professional. The therapist is well-trained in helping people deal with traumatic events and bad memories.

The therapist may help you change the narrative you tell yourself. For example, if certain memories make you feel bad about yourself, the therapist may help you understand that the bad things that happened to you are not your fault.

Or, the therapist may help you respond to those unpleasant memories in a healthy way so they won’t bother you anymore.