Are You Torturing Yourself With Your Thoughts?In 1995, on December 31st, at 7:56 pm my older brother by 10 months and best friend in the world, Chris Hampton, took his last breath, at the age of 33.  My mother, father, and other brother were all at his hospital bedside that New Year’s Eve night.

Death didn’t happen quickly and it was not a particularly peaceful experience to me.  I now realize that this was more a reflection of my state of mind at the time rather than the actual happenings. The process of dying seemed to take forever with time passing in agonizing, slow-motion. I watched in horror for more than an hour, as Chris struggled to breathe with the pauses in between his raspy, strained breaths becoming longer and longer.

His lips were chapped and cracked because of the oxygen mask he had been wearing for days and there was this flap of skin hanging off of his upper lip which would flutter with each breath. In the prolonged pause between each breath every time, I thought “This is it,” but Chris would take another shallow breath until his chest eventually remained motionless forever and the flap of skin still.

It amazes me that, after a serious brain injury that made some of my memories vanish, I can still clearly remember the chilling look of terror in Chris’ big brown eyes when I told him that, as he had directed, we weren’t going to put him on the respirator. And I remember running to the bathroom at work to cry when he called to tell me that he was HIV positive like it was yesterday. I vividly recall the feelings of utter helplessness I felt just having to watch him grow thinner until he looked like a walking skeleton and not being able to do anything.

For years after his death, I relived these images and thoughts in graphic detail. The painful scenes played over and over in my head and became more exaggerated and emotionally charged over time with each recollection.  When I really got going, it was as if some sad, pathetic movie played on an endless loop in my head. I didn’t know it at the time, but from a neuroscientific perspective, the more I retrieved the memories, the more I reinforced them.

Over the coming years, the mental movie of the bad scenes from my 18-year marriage and ugly divorce got equal air time in my head. Then, the documentary of the following tumultuous three-year relationship and the bad breakup got added to the playbill.  My attempted suicide in 2007 was, among other things, an effort to stop these incessant thoughts. I was desperate for some peace and rest – from my own thoughts.

What I’ve come to realize is that I was torturing myself with my own thoughts.  I WAS DOING IT TO MYSELF!  While this may be apparent to some people, it was a huge aha for me to realize this after my suicide attempt. Yes, Chris died and endured a horrible illness.  Yes, there were plenty of ugly scenes to dredge up from my marriage and hurts from the following relationship. All of it really did happen, but I was the one choosing to continue the pain and bring it into the present by reliving it all over and over in my mind. It really boiled down to making the simple decision not to do this to me anymore.

By associating a positive memory and feeling with a negative memory, you can physically change your brain, the general feeling of your past, and your present attitude, I’ve found. The point is not to resist painful memories or experiences and grasp at or try to force yourself to think positive ones instead. That’s almost impossible and leads to its own kind of suffering. The goal is to pair negative material with and eventually, replace it with positive emotions and perspectives. With repetition, this process actually changes your brain building new mentally healthy pathways and associations which become the default for you in time.

In his book, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, Rick Hanson writes:

To gradually replace negative implicit memories with positive ones, just make the positive aspects prominent and relatively intense in the foreground of your awareness while simultaneously placing the negative material in the background….Because of all the ways your brain changes its structure, your experience matters beyond its momentary, subjective impact.  It makes enduring changes in the physical tissues of your brain which affect your well-being, functioning and relationships.  Based on science, this is a fundamental reason for being kind to yourself, cultivating wholesome experiences, and taking them in.

If your head is filled with painful memories of the past, and worrisome thoughts of the present and the future, I want you to know that YOU CAN CHANGE THIS!  I did. I certainly still remember Chris’  tragic illness and death, but I choose to spend more time focusing on his wicked sense of humor and all the times we laughed so hard that we got the “gigglesnorts.” I choose to remember the nights we danced our asses off. I choose to recall how proud he was of me and how much he loved me. I chose to relive that adored feeling I had when I was with him.

In every life, there’s going to be pain, joy, and everything in between. Your experience of your life and your physical brain are shaped by what you choose to focus on. You can torture yourself or choose better-feeling thoughts and memories.  It really is that simple.

You can read more of my story here.

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  1. Marty Coleman Reply

    Debbie, You are very insightful in your understanding of these things. I recently came across the story telling idea and it meshes well with yours. Basically what we do with the past is create and tell a story about it. It isn’t what happened, it’s what we say happened. And if we say it enough, it becomes the de facto story of that time. So, what I try and do is evaluate to see if there is another way I can tell the stories of my life so they are less about the pain and suffering and more about the joy, wisdom, growth, understanding and help that occurred at that time. Same event, but the story that is told has a different slant, a different take on the events.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Marty, I love it. You are so smart to recognize and adopt this! It is scientifically proven that we do not recall the past accurately. As you say, we create a story of it that we tell ourselves and believe. In a blog, I quote Jonah Lehrer as saying “Our memories are not like fiction. They are fiction.” He says our memories are imperfect copies of what actually happened and compares them to “a Xerox of a Xerox of a mimeograph of the original photograph. …we have to misremember something to remember it.” We might as well put a positive spin on the creative part of it!

  2. Debbie,
    I’m so glad you learned “the secret!” It’s all up to us. When we realize that we are not our thoughts and that we can choose what we focus on our lives can and will change in an instant. I’m happy you’re still with us to share the wisdom you’ve gained from your many life experiences. You are an inspiration to me and many more too!
    May you be blessed with a wonderful happy, healthy and successful new year.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Angela, it is like a secret. I think, I understood this concept intellectually before, but it really makes no sense or difference until one internalizes it. Once you “get it” everything changes instantly.

      Life is now a curious adventure to me. I look forward to the coming year. May it be in the highest good for both of us….whatever that may manifest as.

  3. Debbie, I appreciate your sharing your story with me. I lost my wife & twin brother a few years back and will never forget them, Fortunately I have great memories to sustain me. Trying to think what helped, perhaos as a kid we would say “never give up” or in the Paratroopers it was “don’t be a quiter”
    Or was it “when the going gets tough the tough get going”?
    You are so fortunate to have such a wonderful mother/

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Chet, good for you for choosing to focus on the good memories. It does make all the difference.

  4. Just read your blog. Very sorry for your loss. I’ve experienced many losses over the past 10 to 15 years. A partner, father, my cat, my closest friend of 30 yrs, and just two years ago my oldest brother. A month before my brother’s death, my sister who lives with MS took a turn for the worse and had to be admitted to a nursing home and is basically on life support and being fed through a tube. My 89 year old mother, who cared for my sister for nearly 35 years, has fallen into a deep depression as a result, was hospitalized and has been diagnosed with congestive heart failure and Alzheimer disease. Every time I talk to her, I could sense a bit -by-bit loss of the person I once knew, as affable, loving, generous, and…well my mom.

    I also came down with cancer and went into a very deep depression, which apparently was always a part of my life, I just had no idea that it wasn’t normal to have constant negative thinking. Cancer, brought everything to a halt. I was also laid off at the very beginning of the recession, from a job that I loved and was about to return to in another two weeks while recovering from treatment, which nearly killed me. Ironic.

    The depression worsened to the point I had to be partially hospitalized and put on medication for the rest of my life. I am also HIV+, well, since cancer treatment, I officially have AIDS, as the chemo killed as many T-cells as it could, coming down to a 196 from a very healthy 2,000 plus. All this happened four years ago. I am now on disability, and have not been able to find work.

    My partner who is a pediatric doctor in residency, at one of most prestigious medical schools in the country, we moved to this city in which I know no one, and as I was commuting for work, then got sick shortly after, I never had an opportunity to make a life for myself here. The life I once recognized as content, has been shattered. Now I am faced with starting all over again, and am very terrified of the prospects, and not irrationally of a cancer recurrence. Luckily the relationship has survived all of these incidences, and we try to be happy in spite of the hurdles.

    However, how long, I ask, will these memories continue to invade my days? I agree with you that we have the power within us to make the choices to be happy; where I run into problems with this thought process, is that everyone makes it sound so easy. It’s not. It takes a lot of work. It takes accepting that some days one is not up to snuff and will have a “bad day”. Dealing with the side effects of the medication is neither a cake walk or a panacea of curative measure.

    Yes, we are masters of our thoughts, and we can and will overcome the waves of sadness and depression that will suddenly drench us. However it is as important to understand the underpinnings of grief, of loss, of depression. None of it just away, and none of it is “as simple as that”.

    To your readers, I say, start the journey, but don’t expect instant success. Expect the rough seas toward peace and hang in there.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      I did not mean to imply that it is an easy or quick process to change your mindset. It is not at all, but the decision to do so is easy and simple. The actual process can take years of conscious diligence every day and is a life long practice. This will enable neuroplasticity, and a brain will physically change so that this type of thinking becomes easier and more the norm over time. Such neuroplasticity can take years. The practice of changing your thoughts and choosing your reaction becomes a mental health tool one always has avilable. It is not quick or easy, but it WILL happen.

      I, personally, do not believe believe sorrow, grief and pain ever go away and do not “invade our days.” They are an integral part of life just as much as joy and, I believe, add to the richness and texture of it. They give it meaning and allow for great learning. I believe, it only causes more pain and suffering for anyone to think that they are trying to achieve some place where this does not exist because they are only setting themself up for continual disappointment. These types of feelings are to be expected. Even a bad day is normal. I would even say that it is not bad. It just is. It is what you need it to be that day.

      I would also encourage you not to try to “overcome the waves of sadness and depression that will suddenly drench us.” This implies resisting or somehow winning over them to me. I would encourage anyone to accept the feelings…whatever they may be… without judgement, feel them, and move through them. Move into them. Sit with them. Befriend them. See what they have to teach you. The bottom line is to allow them. Only when you truly allow yourself to feel them and express them, can you heal. It has been my experience, that they, then, take a back seat.

      I applaud your strength and ability to persevere and even find some joy in all that has gone on in your life. You are so right in saying to “expect rough seas towards peace and hang in there.” Blessings to you!

  5. It’s a gift to share in celebrating your brother’s life and in remembering there is a choice in how we respond to the things we can never change. Thank you!!

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Thank you, Pam. It is a gift to remember him and how he added to my life and, now, to be sharing him with you all!

  6. Judy M Hampton Reply

    Dearest Daughter, thank you for your memories and your positive thoughts. On this New Year’s Eve, I choose to cherish the love between you and Chris and the fun we all had together. Love to you, Mom

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      With all the fun we did have with him, the good memories are plentiful and far out number the bad. These days, thankfully, I have to consciously pull up the bad ones. When I think of him now, I smile.

  7. Debbie,

    I used the same approach to help athletes perform at peak efficiency when facing situations where they had previously failed miserably. Unfortunately it took me many years to realize I could do the same thing with my own painful life memories. The ego is so devious that it can hide truth from us in its attempt to make us believe we are something we are not and convinces the mind to carry out its agenda. I’m glad you found the secret to happiness and inner peace. Have a great New Year.


    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Hi, Tony! Happy New Year and blessings to you!

      Isn’t it funny how we can know something in one area of life and do not make the transference to other applicable situations. I still do this far too often. When the light bulb does go off, I am like “Why did I not think of this before?”

      • Julie Nowlan Reply

        Your posts are so insightful and moving. Thank you for sharing your life and for giving us all some insight into our own as we journey thru it together. Blessings to you in the New Year!

        • Debbie Hampton Reply

          Julie, thank you for your the kind sentiments. It has definitely been a learning process for me. It makes all the more meaningful to be able to share it and maybe have others see a nugget or two of wisdom in it for their own lives. Blessings to you too!

  8. Hi Debbie,

    Happy New Year to you and your loved ones!! 🙂

    That is a lot of pain for anyone to deal with. It is no surprise you reacted the way you did. I suppose as part of the healing process, you had to relive that pain until you were ready to realize there was no longer any need to hold on to it. It’s hard to let go if we have not gone through the process sufficiently.

    I would know since I’ve had my own fair share of pain and heartaches over the years. When I had less self-mastery I would want to sleep the day away to prevent myself from thinking about the pain. As I learned to better manage my emotions and perceptions, the need for long periods of sleep to heal lessened. The pain was still real and it still hurt when it happened, but I was able to manage it better than I did in the past. Everything has its time and place.

    One of the ways that I have learned to manage pain is to try to see the lesson behind it. I try to see what I should and can learn. I also reframe the incident in a way that empowers rather than cripple me. As you rightly point out, it is what we choose to focus on that really matters.

    It also helps that I am able to foresee the outcome of events with divination. In many ways this gives me peace of mind and helps me to accept and find ways to manage a bad outcome as early as possible. I even manage to give bad outcomes a miss altogether if I know they are going to happen. This is immensely helpful in relationships because I know who will work out with me and who will not, saving myself a lot of heartache in the process.

    Thank you for sharing this heartfelt article with us. The world needs it.

    Irving the Vizier

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Irving, thank you for your kind and understanding words. It sounds like you have developed many healthy tools along the way for handling life’s painful challenges. I, for some reason, did notlearn these until I had to out of necessity the last couple of years. I think this stuff needs to be taught to every child by their parents and in school. It sure would produce a lot more mentally healthy, capable, happy individuals. I sure try to impart it to my children by example. I try to teach it verbally too some but they tell me “enough of the lectures!”

      May the new year bring you and your brain many blessings.

  9. That’s what I keep telling my best friend… These thoughts have become a habit and like any other habit, they can be changed. Like changing a tape or tuning in a different radio station. When you decided to replace your negative thoughts with positive ones, were you on SSRI’s? I have a feeling that these meds can interfere with the higher cognitive functions such as motivation and reasoning… They have been shown to calcify the frontal lobe and I am quite convinced that they can make this kind of change more difficult. She has been on them for a good portion of her life and says she doesn’t like it when she’s not on them. Which means to me, she is unwilling to feel things and deal with them in “better” ways. The end result is an emotionally stunted person who gives into every whim and do not care about long term consequences.

    • dblhampton Reply

      Zabelisa, I was not on SSRI’s when /I changed my thinking. What you suggest sounds entirely plausible I believe, for me and maybe others, the drugs keep us hesitant to change because we think the drug is supposed to do the work , not us. Only when I quit looking for quick, easy answers in a pill, could I start changing my life for the better.

  10. IMO people who have been or are currently related can make mental suggestions which in some circumstances can be perceived by the other person in the relationship. Hateful people that haven’t got their way or have been rejected do abuse relationship for the purpose of trying to hurt the other person. I found that once you realize that many of those negative thoughts, if not all of them, are mere suggestions, you can just discard them.

    • I totally agree, Kyrani. When you learn to not take the comments or actions of others personally and just discard them, as you say, much peace and happiness follows. It’s never about us anyway. It’s about them.

      • YesDebbie you are right, it is not about us but those around us that are toxic or the so-called “functional psychopaths”. The important factor that I realized is that a thought may simply be a suggestion and the seeming associated bodily reactivity or emotion is in fact unrelated and often due to a concealed threat. I have started to make some videos to explain what I learnt and how to overcome it. See here:

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  13. Hi Debbie,

    So sorry to hear about the loss of your brother. I can imagine what a traumatic event that must have been for you and your parents. Losing him at such a young age must have been heartbreaking.

    It is nice to know that we can help ourselves overcome the negative memories and that we can change our brain patterns.

  14. You are such a great role model for overcoming dreadful experiences. Kudos to your for your courage and persistence. 🙂

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  17. Debbie, I love how your story and your life has led you to become so wise and learn so much about the brain. This article is brilliant! Thank you!
    xoxo, Z~

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