Teaching Your Brain To “Let-Go” of Upsetting Thoughts and Memories: YOU CAN DO IT!
How can you teach your brain to let-go of upsetting thoughts and memories? You can do it through repeatedly practicing a simple meditation exercise. I will tell you about this method later in this document.
But first, it is important to understand how your emotional memory system works and why the meditation method can help you.
Modern neuroscience suggests that our brain has a bias toward remembering negative things and remaining alert, constantly scanning our surroundings for more (different or similar) negative things to come. This basic tendency is one of the causes of our anxiety, depression and angry or fearful behavior.
Our brains evolved in a dangerous and hostile environment and therefore it is likely to be “Velcro for threatening events” and “Teflon for positive events”. In other words, negative events stick and positive ones are more likely to be overlooked.
Our brains’ limbic system has recorded our emotional events, even during the first months of life. The limbic system (more specifically the amygdala within the limbic system) acts as the watch-dog, smoke detector, panic button, and alarm system, for our brain. It constantly scans our environment for more such emotion-packed events. It is also the main location of rage, anger and fear responses.
We can recall very few memories earlier than our first three years of our life. However, a great number of memories exist in the form of neurological circuits that were associated with the many stimuli that we have encountered in association with emotion evoking events. The lack of memory previous to three years of age is called infantile amnesia, but the non-verbal emotional memories of these many events are still with us all and they still influence our current emotions, perceptions and behaviors.
The neurological circuits laid down throughout our lives are “fired-up” when we perceive mental or external stimuli similar to those associated with the original events and emotions. These physiological reactions stimulate our autonomic nervous system and our endocrine system. This results in strong emotional impulses (fight, freeze or runaway). These emotions and impulses are also communicated to our higher brain centers (the neo-cortex and pre-frontal cortex). These thinking portions of our brain then interpret these bodily changes and they direct our interpretations of what is happening and how we behave under the circumstances. The frontal cortex reads these emotional impulses and our resulting felt physiological changes and attempts to understand and cope with them.
Many of our most disturbing memories come from traumas occurring early in our lives and we may not have clear memories of them (infantile amnesia). These are called implicit memories because, even though they are firing within our brain we cannot consciously remember them (they are unconscious). Worse yet, we actually don’t know that we are having a memory! We simply experience the emotions associated with the original traumatic events that we experienced in our past. To make matters worse, these experiences are often not associated with identifiable external or internal stimuli; they may be triggered random thoughts. We then have the feeling that we are losing control of our mental processes and our emotions and this feeling alone can be very upsetting for most people.
“Neurons that fire together are wired together” (D.O. Hebb). A traumatic event creates a neurological circuit that represents that event in our brain, as a memory. Any external or internal stimulus that is similar to that older memory can cause those neurological-circuits to fire and you will remember stimuli and/or feelings and emotions associated with that event (explicit memory), or you will experience only the emotions associated with the event and not even know that you are having a memory (implicit memory).
The brain is an association machine and it is an anticipation machine. It anticipates painful or distressing stimuli of the past, and it scans the environment for these events , or similar stimuli, and it expects them to reoccur. The brain then identifies anything similar (even remotely similar) and further reinforces the original memory and associated emotions. This is why the brain is also called a recursive system.
Both explicit and implicit memories can cause anxiety, Fight or Flight autonomic nervous system arousal, as well as the release of stress hormones in our body. Both explicit and implicit memories can also cause us to feel anxious, paranoid, depressed and/or angry. These memories can also take the form of scripts (like lines and actions to be performed in a play) that we may feel compelled to reenact or undo is some way. These scripts can involve seeking to isolate ourselves, thinking bad thoughts about ourselves, consuming inebriates, escaping through play and fantasy, or attacking others (or ourselves), verbally or physically.
When emotions “steal” or “hijack” the thinking part of our brain, these are some of the irrational ways our “automatic pilot can cause us to go into a tail-spin and crash,” so to speak. If we allow your emotions to climb too high, our thinking brain goes “off-line” and we are functionally “brain impaired”. Then, any of the previously mentioned self-defeating reactions, and more, are more likely to occur. Sadly, these actions are normally damaging to your goals and aspirations. For example, when we lose the ability to be rational because we allow our emotions to paralyze the thinking part of our brain we are prone to attack others with sarcasm, contempt, personal criticism and shaming. Such irrational, unthinking-“brainless” attacks can even become violent. When we attack others in these ways something very bad will happen almost 100% of the time. It is common for marriages and other precious relationships to be destroyed in this way.
The problem to be solved is that once our stressful explicit or implicit memories are fired-up in our Limbic system (with autonomic nervous system and endocrine system activation), the thinking and coping sections of our brain are short-circuited, switched off, or Hijacked. We then automatically act in irrational and self-defeating ways by panicking, freezing, physically attacking, raging, verbally attacking, running away, eating, drinking, spending, gambling, or sexually acting-out, etc.).
Learning To Let-Go: Developing A Psychological Immunity To Upsetting Memories
Mindfulness is a practice and strategy for achieving moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness and calmness. It involves taking a calm second look” at our first impulses, thoughts, or reactions and then dismissing them and relaxing.
By learning to meditate, and focus upon our stream of consciousness, we are learning to manage memories that threaten to emotionally hijack our thinking, analyzing, coping, and self-controlling brain. When we avoid doing such exercises, our traumatic memories can “incubate”, or grow in their power to upset us. Totally avoiding previously upsetting memories is a natural thing to do because in the short-run we are more comfortable. But in the long-run, these memories persist in intruding and upsetting our comfort. Dealing with upsetting memories through meditation is a natural and powerful way to inoculate your mind against upsetting intrusions.
The Meditation Exercise
• Find a comfortable position
• If you are sitting, place your feet flat on the floor
• Place one hand over your heart (both hands, if you like)
• Take a deep breath and hold for a few seconds
• Resume breathing in a relaxed and calm way. Be sure to breath through your nostrils if you can (slightly pursed lips, if you must). Do not pant or short breath. Nicely satisfy your brain with oxygen.
• Try to breath low with your stomach rather than by expanding your chest
• Notice the cool-dry sensation around your nostrils/lips as you breath in
• Notice the warm-moist sensation as you breath out
• Repeat at every few seconds a calming and relaxing word. Select one that you like and one that works for you (be calm, relax, let go, etc.)
• Focus your mind’s eye upon your muscles and will them to relax. Move from the top of your head to neck, shoulders, back, chest, arms, hands stomach, hips, buttocks, legs and feet.
• Notice an increasingly relaxed feeling throughout your body
• Concentrate and focus your mind upon these things only
In spite or your best efforts, during meditation, thoughts will come and go. This is normal and you will not be able to stop this from happening. Do not be frustrated with yourself. This is normal, so be very kind and accepting of the way your mind works.
The task to practice is focusing upon your calm and relaxed breathing, calm and relaxed body muscles, and also upon calming self-statements. As new thoughts intrude, your job is to notice them, objectively and calmly consider them for a few seconds, and then dismiss the thought and return to your meditation upon your breathing, muscle relaxation and calming self-statements.
Do this exercise repeatedly for whatever time that you can (five, ten, or perhaps fifteen minutes) at a session. The more you practice this letting-go exercise, the better at it you will become and the more mental/emotional relief you will feel.
The Core Skills Of Mindfulness: In A Nutshell
1. Clarifying, Setting and Reaffirming Intention
Practice your intention to control thoughts and maintain calmness
2. Cultivating a Witnessing Awareness
Developing an awareness of the state of your awareness (metacognition)
Witnessing your inner mental-emotional landscape without autopilot reactions
3. Stabilizing Attention (harmony of intention and attention)
Strengthening your ability to hold your mental focus
I.e., “This is what I want to remember this moment”
4. Strengthening Self-Regulation
Settling and calming negative emotions intentionally
Shortening the time that difficult emotions keep you “hooked”
Avoiding, or recovering from, emotional hijackings
Bringing your whole brain back on line
5. Practicing Loving Kindness
Calming the inner critic and negative self-judgments
Practicing non-judgmental awareness leading to kindness and compassion for
yourself and for others
“Do, Do, Do; Don’t Stew, Stew, Stew” (Albert Ellis)
To recap, both emotionally loaded explicit and implicit memories can cause anxiety through Fight or Flight autonomic nervous system arousal, as well as the release of stress hormones in our body. Both explicit and implicit memories can also cause us to feel anxious, paranoid, depressed and/or angry. These memories can also take the form of scripts (like in a play) that we may feel compelled to reenact or undo is some way.
Practicing meditation using the principles of mindfulness can help to gain control of your thoughts and memories of upsetting events and the ways they influence how you feel and act in the present and future. It is critically important that you practice the meditation methods taught you in therapy sessions and/or the guidelines listed above, daily for five to fifteen minutes per session. Do this several times each day. Through practice, you can gain a significant measure of psychological immunity from your irrational emotions, perceptions and behaviors.
Learning this skill is like learning any other skill (golf, tennis, playing an instrument, or using a computer, etc.), the more you practice the more skilled you will become at managing your emotions. Be gentle and kind to yourself, practice does not make perfect, it simply makes you more skilled. It is good to practice multiple times a day. The more you practice, the more skilled you will become.
“Do Your Work and You Shall Reinforce Yourself” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Materials That You Can Study To Improve Your Emotional Self-Control
The following web site is a good source for audio CD’s and books that relate to meditation and mood/emotional self-control.
*The contents of this document have been heavily influenced by the work-shop teachings of Terry Fralich, LCPC*
V. Thomas Mawhinney, Ph.D., HSPP 20090171A
President, Behavioral Psychological Family Services