What if I told you that we have the power to overcome painful and traumatic events in our lives by rewiring the way that we remember them. Have you ever recalled a negative event that has happened, and began to feel the same way you felt then? Or have you told a story of a rough time and felt overcome with emotion as if you were reliving it? It's funny how our brains work because they aren't actually very good at separating our past from our present. There is no real difference between remembering and thinking, therefore, our brains can mistaken a memory for something that is currently occurring.
When we recall a story, our brains are actually actively breaking down and reconstructing that event, and even activate the neurons that were used in the memory. Every time we remember the memory, we are strengthening its neural pathways because we are moving it from long-term storage to short-term storage, and back again. Here's the good news through, when we reconsolidate those memories, we then have the power to change the way that we remember them.
I've recently read an awesome blog post by Mike McHargue called, "Why It's Important to Tell Even Your Darkest Story", and it really sparked the psychology nerd in me. McHargue offers a story of how he came to a point in his life where he sought out professional therapy, and his therapist challenged him to recall his painful childhood of bullying. He states that he never cried during a session, yet he often fought off a panic attack, but one day his therapist told him that it would be helpful to let himself cry. And here's why:
When we remember a day, or an event, that made us feel a certain way, we often relive that emotion in the moment. This is stronger for painful memories because the limbic system is being activated and your body is attempting to protect you as if the threat was in the here and now. If we change our memories every time that we recall them, then why not try to change the bad ones to good ones. The only catch is that it is necessary to do this in a safe place, whether that be in a therapist's office or with a close, trustworthy friend. By making our experiences real again, we can rework the way we respond to them.
For example, when recalling a memory such as a traumatic car accident, it is common to once again feel the anxiety and fear that the accident caused. However, when recalling this experience in a safe and comfortable environment, to someone who is compassionate and empathetic, then our brain will remember those positive things next time that story is called back into working memory. In turn, it is actually a healthy healing process to tell our painful stories, no matter how many times they needs to be told in order to fully become changed.
So this article reminded me of a post I had written a while back about how I tend to be an over-sharer, and that I'll tell anyone anything about my past or present, no matter positive or negative. I thought this was unhealthy, but I can see now how it can actually be the opposite. Granted, I need to recall the painful memories in the company of someone who I trust can respond with grace, however, I can now pinpoint why sharing my not-so-great life stories can make me feel better.
My challenge to you is this, if you feel that there is a memory, an event, or a story, that is really painful and doing you more harm than good hanging out in your long-term memory, then consider telling it. Consider whether or not it is bringing you down and whether or not there is someone in your life that can meet you with compassion and help you rework that memory. I am also a firm believe that everyone can benefit from a few therapy sessions. We all, unfortunately, have stuff that needs to be worked through or talked about. Even if you walk into the office and just say, "hey, I'd just like to tell you a few stories", then I promise you'll feel better at the end.
Read the article linked above, and think about it. I truly do believe that it is important to tell even your darkest story.
"For our darkest moments, we may have to tell that story dozens of times. Or even dozens of dozens. Each time, that shadow of the past gets a little lighter, until we actually heal. There will still be a scar, of course, but you’ll stop bleeding every time the wound is pricked."
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