If you are of a certain sub-generation of Millennials, you remember where you were in life when you first saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Still in high school, I was too young to appreciate fully what would drive people to want to erase their painful memories of love. With the benefit of experience, I realize now that this desire is a lot more real than simply fanciful. And people struggle with memories of not just heartbreak, but traumas of so many different colors, injustices, abuse, and more.
A new study published in Science Advances may just open the door to erasing unpleasant memories by applying anesthetics. Researchers showed 50 participants slideshows involving an unpleasant story. A week later, a reminder was shown to reactivate this memory—and at the same time, some of the participants received an anesthetic. After 24 hours, those who got the shot were less able to recall the unpleasant story.
This works because how memory gets formed in the brain: your experiences enter the brain as a combination of physical and emotional sensations that get processed and consolidated into an either a long-term or short-term memory. (So this makes sense if you’ve ever thought, “I will remember this forever!” while having an intense experience, and later recall everything from what you wore on this occasion to how things smelled.) But a memory isn’t a perfect reproduction of events: it’s actually susceptible to modification before it’s consolidated and stored, *and* when it is reactivated, unpacked, and re-thought.
When the anesthesia is applied during this susceptible period, it can disrupt the activity in the hippocampus and amygdala, brain areas which are essential to emotional memory.
So what does this all mean? For people who are suffering from legitimate PTSD, this could mean a new way to heal. Memories of sexual abuse, war, or other horrifying events are not things I would say should be worked through with moral fiber and tenacity.
But for many of us, I think painful memories are very much an essential part of our history—the parts that made us grow. I know that even my most heartbreaking memories have silver linings. In due time, I am able to recall them without feeling pain, and just remember the neutral and positive aspects of what I’ve learned and gained. This has happened with traumatic events in adolescence, many romantic heartbreaks, difficulties I had to endure as a young professional…
So if you’re trying to heal from traumatic memories, here are other gentler methods that can help relinquish them without erasing them.
- Meditation: Turn to meditation whenever you feel overwhelmed by memories. It’s effective because this is your time to clear your mind of all thoughts. I prefer to sit up with a straight spine with my legs in a lotus position, and inhale into each chakra. With each breath, I activate the chakra and think of the mantras: 1) I am grounded (root); 2) I feel pleasure and joy (sacral); 3) I am powerful (solar plexus); 4) I am loving and am loved (heart); 5) I speak my truth (throat); 6) I have faith in what I see (third eye); and 7) I serve my purpose in accordance with God’s wishes for me on this Earth (crown). This is a lot of power and tends to not leave any room for negative memories.
- Reiki healing & chakra balancing: Sometimes you need guidance. I think of my reiki healers (Ben Lang is the one in NYC; I work with Colette Walker in Portland) as my “therapists,” in that they help me energetically balance in all aspects of my life. With a more balanced energy system, you’re able to overcome nagging negative memories and move on with a positive, light frame.
- Writing: There is something about negative memories that makes you want to obsessively analyze, despite the pain that it causes you to do so. Writing it all down helps you “remember” so that it doesn’t get lost, but also to let it out of you so you don’t have to hold it all in. Once you’re done writing it, you may burn the paper (if it’s truly something that needs to be let go and banished from your life), or just put it in a safe place for you to read again when you can see things with just a positive and fond state of mind. Here’s more on narrative medicine.
- Exercise: Your body, mind, and spirit are not separate systems, but intricately connected parts of one whole being. When your body is strong and balanced, your spirit will follow suit; when your emotions are out of whack, you tend to fall ill easily. One way to manage your memories is to put your body in a healthy, positive, self-loving state. It lays the groundwork for accepting your memories with self-love and positivity, as well.
How do you heal from negative memories?