How to Deal with Unwanted Memories and Repetitive Thoughts

by | Anxiety, Depression, Featured, Panic Attacks, PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder)

The mind is a tricky thing. Sometimes, when we’re struggling with unwanted memories or repetitive thoughts, it almost feels like it’s working against us! If something has happened to you and you’re now living with the unwanted memories, then it can feel like you’re going mad. At some point in your life you may have been emotionally (or physically) hurt by someone and are now finding that you can’t stop replaying it over and over in your mind. Is this you? Is it the first thing you think about when you wake in the morning? Or maybe, you wake in the the small hours of the night and start thinking about it?

You know in the rational part of your brain that this isn’t getting you anywhere, but you keep going over and over the scenario. What someone said or didn’t say; what they did or didn’t do. Even replaying what you would like to have said to them at the time or done differently. All the time these memories are bothering you, it’s adding fuel to the fire.

You probably wake up feeling quite worn out and emotional and tell yourself that you’ve let it go. But then something happens to remind you of it and it can trigger a wave of emotion or anger. Or you may snap at something seemingly harmless and completely unconnected, producing a reaction that’s out of proportion. 

You might ask yourself, am I the only one who does this?

NO! You are certainly not the only one. The thing is, generally speaking, people don’t like to talk about their deepest darkest thoughts. Most of us don’t want to say out loud what we have been thinking. But in fact most of us have memories that bother us, to a lesser or greater degree. It’s when they start to affect our daily lives, and cause anxietydepressionpanic attacks or anger issues, then you would do well to get some help.  

But what can be done to help with unwanted memories? 

You might be forgiven for thinking that nothing can be done or that you should just be able to snap out of it. If someone hasn’t actually said those words to you at some point, you’ve probably said it to yourself. But if we understand what is happening scientifically in the brain, then it all starts to make sense, why we can’t just let some things go. So let’s find out what is going on… 

We are pattern matching animals

Before we are even born, we have patterns that we seek out, which we learn in the womb. It might be searching for a teat type shape to provide food, which may be a nipple, a bottle or even a finger. It has to be quite a loose pattern as it is not known what exact pattern will provide the food. And as we grow, we continue to learn and enrich our pattern store, to learn and gain new knowledge. Some programs we are born with and some are taught to us as we go.

In addition to these, emergency patterns are learnt when we are in a situation where our brain considers that we are in danger. That danger could be physical, but could also be emotional. So if someone or a situation hurts us, in any way, our brain is likely to store away that information for future reference, so that it might recognise it when it finds itself back in that situation again. 

So why do I keep going over the memories? 

Well, you may well have heard of the fight or flight mechanism. This is when the emotional part of our brain is activated and triggers an emergency reaction. This involves partially switching off the thinking brain, and activating a number of physical sensations, such as your heart beating faster or sweating. The emotional brain is constantly scanning the horizon checking for danger, which it recognises by matching to patterns that it holds. And when it does find something, then it wants you to either flee or fight the ‘enemy’. Stress hormones are released, and we enter a state of shut down ‘all or nothing’ thinking.

This means that our thinking brains are unable to think rationally and recognise that for example, this situation that we are in now is not actually the same as the pattern our emotional brain is matching to.  If you are constantly going over the memory, it is likely that your brain is pattern matching to something over and over again, hence being reminded of it constantly. This is exactly the same process that happens when someone is suffering from PTSD (Post traumatic stress disorder). 

So…. can anything be done to help? 

Yes. Sometimes just realising what the connection is between current behaviour and certain memories and acknowledging that that situation is in the past now is enough to help you move on. However, you may be very well aware what the memories are and can’t put them behind you. Sadly, many talking therapies which go over and over the memories, actually serve to deepen the trauma, as it strengthens the pattern that the brain is holding.

We use called a technique called the Rewind technique. This removes the emotional content from the memory and restores it to being a normal memory in a calm and safe environment. We do this whilst you are in a deeply relaxed state. The great thing about this method is it  doesn’t require the client to speak about all the details of the memory. This is particularly appealing to people who, for example, have suffered even years of abuse, and don’t feel comfortable talking about it. It is a quick process, usually taking just one session for the rewind itself, then with a follow up session. 

Sometimes, we don’t know the reason for our emotional reactions as we are not consciously aware what we are pattern matching to. This is where a skilled therapist can help determine the connection between your current behaviour and past experiences. However, it is important to point out that it can be unhelpful for a therapist to simply dig up the past, without dealing with it.  When selecting a therapist, it is worth bearing in mind the following advice from the Human Givens Institute:

Effective counselling & psychotherapy checklist

It is a good idea to use the following checklist to protect yourself, or someone you know, from ineffective or even harmful types of counselling and psychotherapy: An effective psychotherapist or counsellor:

  • knows how to build rapport quickly with distressed people
  • understands depression and how to lift it
  • helps immediately with anxiety problems including trauma or fear related symptoms
  • is prepared to give advice if needed or asked for
  • they will not use jargon or ‘psychobabble’ or tell you that counselling or psychotherapy has to be ‘painful’
  • will not dwell unduly on the past
  • will be supportive when difficult feelings emerge, but will not encourage people to get emotional beyond the normal need to ‘let go’ of any bottled up feelings
  • may assist you to develop your social skills so that your needs for affection, friendship, pleasure, intimacy, connection to the wider community etc. can be better fulfilled
  • will help you to draw and build on your own resources (which may prove greater than you thought)
  • will be considerate of the effects of counselling on the people close to you
  • may teach you to relax deeply
  • may help you think about your problems in new and more empowering ways
  • uses a wide range of techniques as appropriate
  • may ask you to do things between sessions
  • will take as few sessions as possible
  • will increase your self confidence and independence and make sure you feel better after every consultation.

Take back control and move forward

Once you understand how your brain is processing and reacting to situations, it starts to make sense why we can’t just let things go sometimes. Often clients are wary of tackling an obtrusive memory as they don’t want to bring it all up and feel bad. But most of the time, they have already been suffering for a long time, so for the sake of experiencing another 20 minutes of difficult emotions, then it’s worth the effort to be able to finally put the unwanted memory behind them and move forward.  If you, or someone you know, is struggling with past memories, or irrational reactions, then give New Life Therapy a call now, and let us help you to deal with them once and for all. 

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