One way it can cause problems for us is by associating memories with physiological and emotional reactions, then making us re-live those emotions when the memory is triggered. My brain did this to me recently when I walked into a particular grocery store. I know -- grocery shopping is often a nightmare for us, but this reaction was particularly strong and took me by surprise.
You see, a few years ago, I stopped by an unfamiliar grocery store because it was on my way somewhere. It just so happened that the store was having a massive 1-day cereal sale, and the place was crowded practically elbow-to-elbow. That, on top of not knowing my way around, quickly lead to a panic attack so bad that I almost turned and ran out! Once I grabbed what I needed and made it through the express lane, I went out to my car and spent a good 15 minutes recovering before I could drive. It was awful.
That was before I was on a gluten-free diet. Now, I shop there all the time because they have the best selection of foods that I can eat. The place itself hasn't had a negative impact on me -- at least, it hadn't until the other day. Also, I've gotten much better in crowds and usually don't even have to take my anti-anxiety supplements to spend time in them.
But wouldn't you know it, I was there the other day and noticed that it was especially crowded, but I didn't think anything of it. Then, after I got inside, I saw signs up for a 1-day cereal sale and the memories of that old experience came flooding back. My heart started to race, my breath became shallow, I got dizzy, and I wanted to get out of there as fast as possible. I ducked into a quiet-ish aisle and pretended to read the ingredients on some random box of something while I took deep breaths and mentally talked myself down. Fortunately, I got myself under control and was able to do my shopping.
I've had other memory-triggered reactions, but this was one of the strongest and took me most by surprise because of how long it had been and how comfortable I usually am in the environment.Â I know I have a learned aversion to cooking based on the anxiety it used to cause, and that's something I have to confront on a daily basis, trying to re-train my brain to see it as a non-scary activity.
Brain research shows that strong emotions cause events to be more firmly embedded in our memories, so when we have an extreme reaction like a panic attack, it makes for a powerful memory.Â I'm having some luck with simple techniques for when I run into memory-triggered emotions:
- Deep breathing, to slow and hopefully stop the fight-or-flight reaction.
- Positive messages, such as, "You're safe, you're OK, you can get through this."Â (It may sound silly, but it works!)
- Easing back into a situation when possible. For example, cooking only simple, familiar meals to keep from reinforcing the negative memory.
If you can't get past these kinds of memory triggers, you might want to get help from a mental-health professional.Â We're limited enough by our other symptoms -- we can't allow our own memories to limit us further.
Have you had powerful reactions to triggered memories?Â Have they prevented you from doing something or made you avoid a particular place or activity?Â Have you been able to move past it?Â Leave your comments below!