SHIFT: What if we could stop bad memories?

Researchers are studying ways to take the sting out of negative thoughts.

Lisa Machado 8 minute read August 24, 2021
stop bad memories

What if there was a better way to manage troubling thoughts and memories? Getty

“There are just too many reminders here.”

I was in the local grocery store comparing the state of the organic apples to regular apples when her bright orange shirt caught my eye. ‘P’ was the mom of one of my kids’ school chums. A few years ago, she lost her mother to ovarian cancer — it was one of those cases of a diagnosis that came way too late.

“We had been teasing her about the middle-age pudge she suddenly had,” she said about her mom, we’ll call her Rose, who, at five and a half feet and barely 100 pounds, borrowed her teenage granddaughter’s clothes and wore kids running shoes.

Even though the bloated skin around her waist was uncharacteristic — “she really liked ginger snaps,” my friend said — it wasn’t until months later, when Rose saw her doctor about a yellow fever vaccine for an upcoming trip to Thailand, that she became concerned. She had laughingly made an off-the-cuff comment about her increasing pant size and gnawing back pain, and it set off a series of urgent tests.

She died less than a year later.

P said that everything about where she lived brought back painful memories of her mother — the spare bedroom where she slept when she came to help with the kids, the red velvet chair she curled up in to watch Coronation Street and her preferred bench on the patio for bird-watching. She would stretch out there in the early morning, and the rays of the sun would fall just right so she could watch the birds jostle each other in the birdfeeder that hung from the tall maple tree above her.

These were just some of the reasons P had decided to sell her house and move to Germany. “For a new start,” she said. “And maybe I won’t be so sad.”

Finding a way to move forward was the same thought a colleague had a few years ago after a cyclist hit her as she was crossing a busy Toronto street. Even though her concussion had resolved and the various cuts and bruises healed, she could not stop the disturbing thoughts that invaded her mind daily: the shocked look on the cyclist’s face as they collided, the soapy smell of the paramedic who kneeled over her asking what her name was, and the whooshing sound of cars rushing by.

She now walks only on quiet tree-lined streets, and takes a taxi if her route requires getting through heavy traffic and swerving bicycles. At home, a radio plays all day to block out sounds of sirens. And at night while she sleeps, a white noise machine takes over the job of buffer.

Meanwhile, a doctor friend who lost his dad suddenly five years ago — just months after finding out he was his biological father — told me that the memories have never stopped for him. They are less intense, for sure, but not gone. He prefers to “sit with them,” he says, feeling the emotions these memories bring on and acknowledging that they won’t be there forever. “I know it will just take time.”

Moving your family across the globe seems monumental — figuring out what belongings should go and what needs to stay, finding jobs and schools, plus long-distance house hunting. And constantly trying to control your environment sounds exhausting. “Sitting” with memories that torment you is no fun either.

But are any of these strategies better than the others at calming troubling thoughts? Is it realistic to think that one can find peace by physically distancing oneself from triggers? After all, how can you get away from what lives in your head?

Years ago, I too made a move to get away from upsetting memories. Granted, it was just around the corner from another house, but my rationale was the same. Lots had happened in my old place: there was the wall my mom leaned against, crying as she told the throng of relatives that had descended on my house that the doctors must be wrong about my diagnosis; the window I gazed out of as I laid in bed, too scared to sleep; and the chair my fatherly Greek neighbour sat in as he told me not to worry.

Most of that I could handle.

Except for the screen door that wouldn’t close properly — the last thing my father with early onset dementia “fixed” for me. I thought a change would do us all good.

Moving got us a bigger house in which both kids had spacious rooms and new furniture — we had sold almost all of our stuff so we could have an authentic fresh start.

I didn’t get the freedom from the scary and sad memories that I had hoped for though — I still can’t walk by my old house without the image of my parents sitting on the front steps with worried faces waiting for diagnosis news crossing my mind. And I still check for the empty holes on the front door frame where the crooked patio door once hung.

But it’s better than it was.

And now, a couple of months since losing my brother, I’m feeling that way all over again — the need to duck and dodge memories that seem to be coming at me from everywhere. His mischievous smile when he would make a snapping motion with his hands on my head and tell my kids that is was a brain eater and that it was starving. Or the time we sat waiting for his radiation appointment and he showed me a text message that our mother sent to him that was meant for her boyfriend and we giggled like little kids. Or the last time I heard him laugh as he said he couldn’t possibly die and leave the world with the most un-cool Machado (me).

Like my friend with the white noise, some memories are brought on by sounds and smells: the playlist I worked out to on the morning he died always brings back feelings of guilt that I should have fought more to visit him, while the smell of hand sanitizer reminds me of the young doctor who told us the time of death.

Others, like it is for P, are images that fill my mind when I wake up and make sleep hard at night: the tears in his eyes as he asked his oncologist for more time; the black liquid that seeped from his mouth when his nine-year-old laid his head on his still chest; and my mother, sobbing inconsolably as she knelt on the floor outside of his hospital room.

How we choose to cope with our emotions in response to difficult situations — whether that’s physically distancing ourselves from triggers, trying to prevent them or “sitting with them” — is known in the psychology world as emotional regulation strategies. And according to research, we unconsciously use them many times throughout the day in order to adapt to the demands of our environment and prevent emotional breakdowns and burnout.

Two of these strategies include suppression — the “bottling up your emotions” and putting them “in a box,” explains Sanda Dolcos, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Illinois’ Beckman Institute and in the Department of Psychology. “This is a strategy that can be effective in the short term, but in the long run, it increases anxiety and depression.”

And then there is reappraisal, which she refers to as “looking at the glass as half full,” or finding something positive about a negative thought. For example, my friend who lost his father may try to focus on the good times that he was able spend with his dad before his death.

But what if there was a better way to manage troubling thoughts and memories? What if we could do better than avoidance and positive thinking? According to Dolcos, we can.

In a study that she authored with her husband, Florin, on whether or not we can control the sting of bad memories, the Dolcos’ found that by thinking contextually you can actually train your brain to reduce the impact of unwanted memories and increase the positive impact of the good ones.

“Sometimes we dwell on how sad, embarrassed, or hurt we felt during an event, and that makes us feel worse and worse,” said Florin, tying this tendency to ruminate on a negative memory to clinical depression. “But we found that instead of thinking about your emotions during a negative memory, looking away from the worst emotions and thinking about the context, like a friend who was there, what the weather was like, or anything else non-emotional that was part of the memory, will rather effortlessly take your mind away from the unwanted emotions associated with that memory.”

The Dolcos’ are so pumped about the results that they are beginning studies on how this technique can help those with clinical depression and severe anxiety.

My friend in Germany admits that changing geographic regions didn’t do anything about the jarring memories of her mom that still pop into her mind. If anything, she says, there are more of them.

“What’s different is the time that has passed,” she says. “I now focus more on her smiles than her pain and my loss.”

I am not convinced that simple thought manipulation is the key to freeing oneself from the memories that bring you down — but maybe that’s all it takes. And how great would it be to have one more tool to help us manage our mental health.