How memories can go from bad to good

mature woman depressed sitting outside thinking about her bad memories.

By Dr. Julie Schwartzbard, MD

Traumatic memories have a nasty habit of rearing their ugly heads and making us anxious, fearful, angry or resentful. These types of memories can take on outsized proportions, effectively magnifying the size of the event and its aftereffects. Bad memories can take over your conscious mind, often when you’re feeling vulnerable or depressed, and plunge you into the past.

Recalling a traumatic event over and over again can drop you into a doom loop where you’re compelled to rehash the trauma you experienced previously. This can have the unfortunate effect of imprisoning you in the past, instead of allowing you to live in the present, where you’re supposed to hang out most of the time.

But what if you were able to separate the way the memory makes you feel from the memory itself? If that sounds like some sort of brain-zapping science fiction, amazingly — it’s not. Though the science is still emerging, researchers think it may be possible to divorce your feelings from really bad memories.

In this case, the traumatic event would still be there lodged in the past but it might not be able to trigger the same fears and anxieties as before. If you were free of those feelings, you’d be able to remember bad events without being at their mercy emotionally.

Can your brain “erase” disturbing image-based memories?

When you’re struggling with a particularly distressing memory, defining the emotions you feel around that memory is the first step toward ridding yourself of them for good. Even though it’s natural to feel sympathy for yourself as you recall something dreadful that happened to you, ironically it’s that attachment of emotion that actually perpetuates the negative effects of the initial trauma.

Disconnecting the memory itself from how you felt at the time of the event can reduce the negative effects of that memory. The trick is to learn to distract yourself from the emotions by focusing on aspects surrounding the event itself (the song that was playing, the friend who held your hand, how hard it was raining, etc.) instead of how sad or traumatized you felt way back when.

This may sound a little simpler to do than it truly is, especially for people who have endured terrible abuse, loss or pain. A psychiatrist or trained therapist can help usher patients through the process gradually, but steadily. But it still suggests that the brain can be lured into protecting us from our memories of traumatic events by letting go of some of the worst details.

And that can make a big difference going forward since we have a strong tendency to dwell on these events simply because they’ve had such a big impact on our lives. So even though your brain can’t prevent trauma from occurring, after the fact, it may be able to deemphasize some of the painful specifics of that event in your memory.

Let your memory paint a rosier picture of the past

By intentionally tapping into your mind’s predisposition to wander, it’s possible over time to shrink the power a bad memory holds as well as the difficult emotions that you’ve attached to it. Many scientists think this method of separating out the most emotional components of traumatic memories can be more effective, and perhaps healthier, than overtly trying to suppress bad memories.

But you may still have work to do, with or without a therapist, in order to be able to fully process the trauma of the original event and how it’s affected you.

Your brain uses memory to help you bounce back and thrive after a traumatic event. You may not get to choose exactly how it does that, but it’s still an undeniable part of your incredibly strong instinct to survive — no matter what.

We are resilient life-loving beings and even though it’s sometimes misguided, your memory has your back. Really it does.

  • Denkova, Ekaterina. 2015. Neural Correlates of ‘Distracting’ from Emotion during Autobiographical Recollection. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci 10 (2): 219-230. URL: Accessed 12.02.15.
Read more from Dr. Schwartzbard with her blog: Bad memories – can you really forget them?