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Stopping Bad Memories or Thoughts

Stopping Bad Memories or Thoughts

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Published by: Mohamad Shuhmy Shuib on May 16, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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It is obvious that some people repeat over and over very unpleasant memoriesthat continue to upset them for years. They become preoccupied with a badexperience. All kinds of distressing events are remembered--how they were abused,mistreated or unloved as a child; how someone insulted, assaulted, criticized ordumped them; how they themselves did something very wrong; how meaningless,useless and shameful they are; how life has screwed them over; how they hatesomeone, some event, or some group, and so on. For a few unfortunate people, thetenor of their entire life is determined by a seemingly uncontrollable obsession withthese awful memories or thoughts. Yet, other people have had equally horribleexperiences--war, abuse, deaths, sins--and put the memories behind them; the badmemories are not forgotten but they are avoided or seldom remembered andapparently can remain harmless. The belief-system that underlies the thinking of most psychotherapists and laypersons since Freud, is that highly disturbing memories need to be expressed, evenif it means digging them out of the unconscious, usually in great and excruciatingdetail. If unexpressed, according to this theory, these toxic, partly repressedmemories will seep out in the form of anxiety, various psychological symptoms(OCD, panic reactions, addictions, depression...), physiological disorders (impairedimmune system, asthma, fatigue, pain...), and/or in personality disorders(suspiciousness, passive-aggressiveness, dependency, Borderline impulsiveness,social withdrawal...). The idea that bad thoughts and feelings need to be expressedis certainly not a new idea.St. Thomas quotes Jesus as saying: "If you bring forth what is within you, whatyou bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what youdo not bring forth will destroy you."On the basis of this express-your-feelings theory, treatment is often directedtowards
improving our memories
of unpleasant events, e.g. using psychoanalysis,insight therapy, non-directive therapy, TIR, journals, autobiographies, hypnosis, andmany other methods. These are not quick methods but one can understand therationale for uncovering the festering sore, detail by detail, thus, aiding healingpresumably by sharing with someone, understanding, and thinking though life'strauma. There are many life histories taken during therapy that support the notion thatfully or partly repressed memories, often terrible abuse, are indeed associated witha wide variety of long-term psychiatric disorders and difficulties relating with othersand with one's self. Actually, the data is very clear that abused children, regardlessof whether they forget or have crystal clear memories of the traumatic events,suffer a wide variety of psychiatric disorders as adults. It is not always true that badmemories per se lead to psychiatric problems. Just because a bad memory iscorrelated with adult problems doesn't prove the cause. But if the psychologicalturmoil as an adult isn't caused by remembered or repressed experiences, thenwhat are the causes? We don't really have other explanations that quickly come to
mind but there are certainly possible additional explanations. For example, there iscompelling evidence that childhood abuse results in significant physiologicalchanges in the brain and nervous system (Teicher, 2000). It is possible that thesetrauma-induced "brain alterations" could be responsible for many of the lifedifficulties during adulthood--and, in that case, memories would only be the initialcausal factors. Another possible theory is that an individual's genetic orphysiological make up, such as a quick temper or depressive tendencies, cause
the personality traits that contribute to childhood stress or trauma and resultin assorted psychiatric disorders as an adult, i.e. it isn't the memories of a badchildhood that directly cause the adult problems, both just arise from the samegenetic causes.So, in summary, it seems that some people suffer miserably because they haverepressed and
can't remember 
horrible life experiences and some other peoplehave miserable lives because they
can't forget 
their awful experiences--they areupset by constantly remembering bad memories. Misery can certainly be caused inmany ways. However, there are many people who cope with life pretty well eventhough they can, when they want to, remember well their terrible life experiences.And, there are probably happy, well-adjusted people who have partly or totallyrepressed awful occurrences. Clearly, we psychologists and psychiatrists knowrelatively little about these happy-in-spite-of-bad-experiences phenomenon becausethese well adjusted people are unlikely to seek treatment. So, how can we stop badmemories?Relevant to all this is some recent research about "Suppressing UnwantedMemories by Executive Control." in Nature (March 15, 2001) by an Oregonpsychologist, Michael Anderson. The research involved first learning pairs of words,then seeing if trying to forget or "repress" the words resulted in subsequentlyremembering fewer of the repressed words. The more often the subjects tried torepress words, the fewer of these words were remembered. In other words, tryingto keep a memory out of consciousness (Freud's suppression) seems to facilitateforgetting or repression. However, since most therapy tries to reverse this processand decrease the repression of emotionally disturbing events, there seems to besome doubt about when remembering is healthy and when forgetting is beneficial.Isn't it likely that many people have had... and remember... a bad experience,but they just don't think much about it or it becomes an available memory thatseldom comes to mind?Of course, forgetting paired words, as in Anderson's study, is a long way fromforgetting that you were abused or molested by a relative as a child or that yourmother became psychotic when you were seven. The Anderson experiment shows,however, that in some circumstances we can intentionally increase our forgettingand repression. This is of particular interest because children abused by a trustedcaretaker are more prone to forget the abuse than children who are abused by astranger. Why? We don't know, maybe because, as in Anderson's study, the morereminders you see of some event but refuse to think about it or dwell on it, themore likely it is to be forgotten. Naturally, you would see more reminders of a closerelative or family friend than of a stranger, so you get more practice at controllingthe memory of the bad experience. (On the other hand, the experience of beingabused by a person you know well vs. a stranger will surely arouse differentemotions and intensities. Those different feelings may also crucially influence thedegree of repression.)
 There is more discussion of the role of thoughts in determining our feelings inFaulty Perceptions.As mentioned there, research has shown that persons whocontinued to suffer intense prolonged stress following a serious trauma had manymore intrusive disturbing thoughts about their experiences than persons with thesame traumatic history but experienced less stress. So, is it good to try to forgetbad experiences--just put them out of your mind? Well, other well-known researchpsychologists, e.g. Wegner (1989) and Pennebaker (1991), have reported resultsdifferent from the Anderson experiment, namely, that trying
to think aboutsomething stressful actually results in more uncontrollable negative thoughts aboutthe situation. What happens if you are asked to not think of an elephant during thenext five minutes? (See http://mentalhelp.net/psyhelp/chap15/chap15f.htm). Theseresearchers and many therapists believe the deniers and people-who-won't-talk-about-it, who believe they are avoiding their problems, are actually making it worse.Different therapy and crisis workers would counsel "don't obsess about it" or "justput it behind you." Science will eventually provide an explanation of these different-sounding theories about treatment but, for now, we don't have that wisdom.Probably the best approach depends on the person and the circumstances, whichdoesn't say much except "try different approaches."A recent 2002 news report by Dr. Judith Hosie (j.hosie@abdn.ac.uk) and Dr.AlanMilne at the University of Aberdeen is relevant and interesting. After showing a filmthat arouses anger, they had male and female subjects (1) express their angryfeelings, (2) inhibit those feelings, or (3) replace anger with happy memories. Aftershowing a second emotional film and letting the subjects respond freely, they foundthat women who had inhibited feelings to the first film reported feeling more upsetand angry than men in the same experimental conditions. That is, for women therewas a "rebound effect," suppression led women to express more anger. On theother hand, substitution of happy feelings for anger resulted in women feeling lessanger than men. For men, a prior attempt to replace anger with a happy memoryresulted in feeling more anger than after trying to inhibit their anger. Under theseconditions, anger replacement with happy thoughts works better for women whileanger suppression works better for men but makes it worse for women.Surprisingly, there is little research in this area; it is badly needed. For now, findwhat works for you.Many cognitive-behavioral researchers, seeing things more as Anderson does,believe some people simply think about traumatic experiences differently thanothers and, thus, experience different levels of stress. Thus, using methods tochange or control our thoughts, such as trying to forget, or questioning the logic of the upsetting or scary thoughts, as cognitive therapists do, could be a greatadvantage. Research evaluating both methods--the direct reduction-of-upsetting-thoughts/feelings vs. the uncovering-and-understanding-the-details-of-the-trauma--is badly needed.Dr. Peretz Lavie, a sleep and trauma researcher at the Technion-Israel Instituteof Technology, doesn't believe in treating trauma survivors (Holocaust and war) byhaving them recount or relive the trauma over and over. He advocates "leaving thememories behind." He cites some evidence for his approach: better adjustedsurvivors remember
of their dreams than poorly adjusted survivors andcontrol subjects do, suggesting repression of traumatic experiences is healthy. Also,students in Oklahoma City who avoided watching TV coverage of the bombing hadfewer PTSD symptoms. Other researchers have also reported that sexual assaultvictims, who practiced substituting pleasant images for unpleasant memories, had

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