Bad memories: It's okay to open but don't sift through it for more than 90 seconds

It’s okay to open but don’t sift through it for more than 90 seconds

This is it, folks: I’ve reached the – slightly extenuated – end of my month-long daily learning blog challenge. And I wanted to finish with one to keep you happy!

Let me set a scene. You meet up for dinner with a friend sometime after a recent sad event – your boyfriend dumped you, your dog got run over – and, in an effort to commiserate, they want to hear all about it. You’re sure that you’re feeling fine as you start to retell the incident and, moments later, you’re both crying into your linguine. What’s happening?

This is another fascinating consequence of how our memory works. In my recent blog on why we often recognise a person’s face before we recall their name, I explained how your memory of the individual is comprised of different components, housed in different areas of the brain.

Similarly, with emotional memories – like break-ups, bereavements and other “life sucks” moments – part of the memory file is the detail of what actually happened and part of it is the feelings you had at the time.

The latter lags behind the former: once you pull out a memory, you have 90 to 120 seconds before the emotions catch up. The longer you consider the memory, the more the emotions take over. Then that bad memory tells your brain to pull out similar, “relevant” files of other bad times when you have felt that rejected or sad or angry or whatever. And your mood can be totally ruined for the day. Or longer.

The good news is: you’ve got 90 to 120 seconds to stop the bad memory emotions in their tracks. This is not about suppression or denial. Bad stuff happens to us and, if we don’t deal with it, it can come back to bite us even harder at some point when we least expect it. But once you’ve grieved and accepted, you don’t need to dwell.

Feel free to quote me

Feel free to quote me

Here are some simple tricks, many of them care of psychologist Dr Joseph Carver, to help manage your emotional memories and improve your mood in that 90-120 second window:

  • Have a counter happy memory on standby and overlay it. Your best-ever holiday. Your favourite aunt. Winning first prize at your school Spelling Bee (okay, that’s one of mine).
  • Give the bad memory a ridiculously funny name. “Oh boy, here comes the Doo-waddy-waddy-wallaby-watcha-watcha bugger again…”
  • Make the bad memory into a punchline. “Yes, he moved out, but thank god, now I have room to buy more shoes from Primark.” You can think of something wittier than that, I’m sure.
  • Listen to a one of your favourite, good-mood songs. I defy anyone to frown when Katrina and the Waves are “Walking on Sunshine”.
  • Engage your observing mind with the memory (similar to what we covered in the meditation for dummies blog). Rather than let your mind focus on the emotions of the event, distract it by tasking it with recollecting other non-essential aspects: what was the weather like? what blouse were you wearing? were there any delays on the Tube en route to the event? If you give the brain a different assignment, you provide another jumping-off point for it to wander elsewhere.
  • Pinch yourself, start running in place or do something else physically demanding. Another distraction. Work up a sweat.
  • Lump bad memories together and file them. Was the incident in question part of a “series”? Assign it to a category and imagine physically putting it into a folder in a filing cabinet. Then when it’s pulled, your brain busies itself thinking, “oh where’s that from? Yes, that’s right, that was part of the Bad Relationship concertina folder” or “my wild and rowdy years” or “the career upheaval period”.
  • Laugh. Just start laughing,loudly, and don’t stop until the 90 seconds has passed. Tickle your toes if you need to. Be silly.
  • And, finally, remind yourself that the incident or the series of incidents is in the past. It’s no longer relevant or helpful to where you are or who you are right now…

… Which is getting back to your friend, your linguine and a large glass of Pinot without any tears.

(Oh, and by the way, while I’m signing off from daily What I Learned Today blogs, I’ll be back soon with an end-of-term report and more occasional contributions…)