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Bad memories serve an important purpose. They remind us of circumstances and situations that would we would rather not repeat.
It’s normal and even healthy to have bad memories. In fact, it would be a bit strange if you have none at all.
But in the context of mental illness and trauma, bad memories take on a different context. There’s a big difference between remembering that embarrassing time you tore your pants at work and the intrusive weight of remembering a time when harm was caused to you.
The first memory stinks, but it’s likely not disrupting your ability to conduct your life. In contrast, intrusive thoughts from a traumatic experience or mental illness can most certainly disrupt your life.
Science is rapidly progressing in understanding the brain, how memories form, and how we associate with them. Some techniques and strategies can help lessen the impact of bad memories, even though we are not yet at the level where an unwanted memory can simply be purged from the brain.
Though you may not forget a bad memory, there are ways to lessen how those bad memories impact your life today.
Before we get to the tips, we want to remind you that you should talk to a certified mental health professional if you are having intrusive thoughts or troubling memories that interfere with your ability to conduct your life. There is help that can make those things smaller, but it’s not something you can address on your own or with self-help.
PTSD and anxiety disorders are not problems where you want to go it alone.
(Click here to find a counselor near you who can help you deal with the bad memories you have.)
1. Change the context of the memory.
An interesting thing about the brain is the fact that what we tell ourselves often becomes the truth.
For example, a person who has negative self-esteem who constantly talks down to themselves reinforces those negative beliefs and makes them stronger.
Another example is a person with depression who is struggling against how depression paints the world (i.e. that most things are terrible, and it’s all hopeless). The more we feed these kinds of thoughts, the stronger and more real they become because we are exercising those parts of the brain, making them stronger.
As it relates to bad memories, it can help to change the context of the memory.
Let’s say you accidentally said the wrong thing in an important meeting at work. Thinking back on it, you find yourself cringing that you made such a terrible mistake! After all, you’re a professional, and those kinds of mistakes are beneath you and don’t represent what kind of worker you are.
It’s embarrassing and ugly to think about. And, that gaffe had consequences, unfortunately. It might have cost you a promotion or affected your career negatively.
That sucks, and it’s a crappy situation, but you don’t have to dwell in that space. Instead of focusing on how bad the situation was, re-frame it into something softer and more forgiving.
When thinking of that memory, you’d want to focus on thoughts like, “I am a human being who makes mistakes. Same as every other person in that meeting. We’ve all made mistakes, and that’s okay.”
Avoid tearing yourself down or focusing on negative language about the situation. It may not have been positive, but it doesn’t have to live in your brain as a negative either.
If you can turn the situation into something funny to take it a step further, it can become a fun thing to break the ice with: “Let me tell you about the time I made a total fool out of myself in front of my boss…!” said with a smile and a laugh.
The ability to laugh at yourself and the bad situations that life throws at you makes them sting so much less.
Dwelling on the hurt will never make it hurt less. Dwelling only makes the pain worse.
2. Journaling for mental health and peace of mind.
Sometimes a bad memory sticks with us because we haven’t had the opportunity to properly emotionally process it. It’s easy to get hung up on the negative feelings and dwell there instead of just mulling over the situation and letting it go.
Journaling is a powerful tool for self-improvement and clearing out the clutter in your mind. There is a particular method for journaling out negative thoughts and bad memories.
You start with a recounting of the situation itself. This helps you pull all of that information and those details out of your mind. Include everything about the memory that comes to mind. It doesn’t have to be a neat, clean narrative either. You can dump out the information as it comes to you.
Next, you write about the different emotions of the situation. What did you feel? When did you feel it? Did someone cause you to feel something that you didn’t want to feel?
And from there, you write about why you felt the way that you did. You don’t want to limit this to “I felt embarrassed because it was an embarrassing situation.” Be specific. Why was it embarrassing? Why did it make you afraid? Or angry? Why was it negative?
Once you do this, you may find it easier to let the memory go when it pops back into your head. You can instead tell yourself, “I have already thought about this and have no need for it anymore.” Then push your mind onto a different topic.
3. Practice mindfulness to anchor yourself to the present.
Mindfulness exercises can help pull your mind out of your negative memories and thoughts. The primary goal of mindfulness is to be in this present moment, right now.
You’re not in the present moment when you’re dwelling on a bad memory. Instead, you’re pulled into the past where the memory of that thing that you did or experienced is still strong.
There’s a simple grounding practice that can help pull your mind from those memories to your present. It’s called the 5-4-3-2-1 technique, and it goes like this:
Look for 5 things around you.
Feel 4 things around you.
Listen for 3 different sounds.
Smell 2 different things.
Taste 1 thing.
Now, if you don’t have something around to taste, you can also imagine tasting something, like a favorite food or an ice cube.
This focus on your senses and immediate environment is a helpful technique for dealing with anxious thoughts, worries, and bad memories. The 5-4-3-2-1 technique provides a convenient, easily accessible framework for redirecting your thoughts.
4. Work on defusing the emotions of the memory.
Bad memories tend to be more vivid than good memories. The “why” isn’t entirely proven yet, but scientists suspect it has to do with how closely related emotions are to a particular memory.
Negative emotions tend to be stronger than positive ones. Thus, when you have negative experiences with the accompanying emotions, your mind reinforces that link because it invokes such a strong negative emotional reaction.
And, unhelpfully, you reinforce that link the more you think about your negative memories.
One way you can work on bad memories is to heal the negative emotions associated with the memory.
Let’s go back to the previous example of feeling extremely embarrassed about a mistake made at work. You can work to take apart those feelings by scrutinizing them. “Alright, I felt embarrassed because I made this mistake. But is anyone still thinking about it? Do they still care that I made that mistake? Why do I need to keep going back to this memory and these feelings?”
But, what about something more complicated?
What if you had a bad childhood with abusive parents? Or other traumatic experiences? PTSD and mental illnesses are always on the table. But you might have luck lessening symptoms and intrusive thoughts by working through the emotions you have about your history with a certified mental health professional (click here to find one near you). And yes, it’s likely to be difficult and ugly to go through, so don’t be surprised when it is.
5. Shift your focus to non-emotional aspects of the memory.
That connection between emotion and memory is a self-fulfilling loop. The more you dwell on the emotion, the stronger the memory is; the stronger the memory is, the more you dwell on the emotion.
One method that might help you break that loop is to instead focus on other aspects of the memory that do not have emotion. And, if applicable, might have a positive connotation.
Things you can think about may include where you lived at the time, pets you had, positive people you knew, or victories you might have experienced.
Maybe you embarrassed yourself at that work meeting, but that was also the same week you decided to adopt a kitten that brought you happiness.
Instead of saying, “Oh, that’s when I messed everything up,” you instead re-frame it to, “Oh, that’s when I adopted my kitten!” And then focus on the positive feelings generated from that memory.
A word about healing from old wounds…
Listen, we understand that you might be here because you’re carrying some heavy, dark stuff. Life can be pretty ugly, and humans can be terrible to each other.
Wanting to forget “bad memories” can cover a lot of territory going into those dark places. If you are one of those people, the best thing you can do for yourself and your mental health is to seek help from a trained, certified mental health professional.
Dealing with this kind of harm and the emotions that can come with it is a tremendous task that you are capable of, but it’s not going to be an easy fix. You will likely need more personalized assistance than this, or any other self-help article can provide.
To get started, why not click here to locate a counselor close by to where you live, or one who can work with you remotely over video or phone call.
There are a lot of ways to heal, grow, and deal with bad memories. But there are ways that you do not want to use…
Don’t bury it in substance abuse or avoidance. It may feel like it helps to drink, smoke, or snort it away, but that is just going to compound the problem while creating all new problems that you’ll have to deal with. It’s not the solution, and it doesn’t help you heal and move forward. It just keeps you standing in place. Avoid that road at all costs. It doesn’t lead anywhere good.
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- How To Let Go Of The Past: 16 No Bullsh*t Tips!
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- How To Deal With Shame: The Process For Overcoming It
- How To Stop Ruminating: 12 Tips To Quiet Negative Repeating Thoughts
- 12 Ways To Stop Thinking About Something
- How To Write A Forgiveness Letter For Self-Healing