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Parenting Yourself to Heal from Painful Memories

medium_85702173We can use mindfulness to help overcome pain associated with memories of past traumas. Most of us believe that our memories are similar to films or videotapes of events we’ve experienced and that when we recall them, they play accurately in our heads and are always exactly the same. But research shows that this isn’t the case. What actually happens is that every time we recall a memory, the memory reconsolidates itself in our brains through specific proteins at certain synapses. In fact, each time we remember it, the memory can be slightly different, and it is actually changed by the very act of our remembering it!

Research has also shown that the various components of our memories are stored in specific parts of our brain: the visual components in one part, the auditory in another part, and the emotional in the amygdala. The part of a memory that is most vivid to us at a particular time is influenced by our thoughts and feelings at that moment. For example, if we’re already feeling sad when a memory comes up, we may remember the sad emotions associated with a memory more than at another time because that element is emphasized when the memory is reconsolidated.

But reconsolidation also opens the door to healing the painful emotions stored in the amygdala. In many such situations, therapy can be healing, and the reason therapy can work has to do with the nature and functioning of our brain and their relationship to memory. “When therapy heals, when it helps reduce the impact of negative memories,” neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux explains, “it’s really because of reconsolidation . . . Therapy allows people to rewrite their own memories while in a safe space, guided by trained professionals. The difference is that we finally understand the neural mechanism.”

A few years ago, a situation in my family was very painful for me. When discussing it with my therapist, she quickly linked the present-day issue that was causing me so much pain with my old memories of my father’s passing and my feelings of abandonment. As I’ve mentioned, when I first went to therapy, the therapist helped me to uncover and feel the pain about my father’s death that I’d denied for so long. Now, years later, by recognizing and continuing to process those feelings and to see their relationship to my present-day experiences, I felt the pain in the current situation lessen and some of the pain disappeared from my memory of my father’s passing. This is a vivid example of how therapy has helped me to process and heal painful memories.


An excerpt from my recent book, Your Mind Is What Your Brain Does for a Living, now available at Amazon.

photo credit: filmingilman via photopin cc

  • 29 Dec, 2014
  • Posted by Steve Fogel
  • 8 Tags

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