How to Stop Painful Memories from Haunting YouNone of us get out of this life unscathed.

If we’re lucky, we only experience a few deep wounds and even fewer “my life changed in a second” moments.

I’m not trying to be a downer, but I’m here to tell you to expect pain as part of life. Big pain. It’s normal. Don’t be too surprised when it shows up. Enduring the loss of a child, surviving a bout with cancer, going through a messy divorce, or being the victim of violent crime are all too common. You can’t have the good without the bad.

However, the painful memories of the bad don’t have to consume your life and haunt you forever.

I know. I’ve had more than my share of pain.

After taking care of my brother as he wasted away and died of AIDs, the end of my 18-year marriage to my high school sweetheart in an ugly divorce, and years of things not working out, and being flat-out disappointed with life, I tried to kill myself by swallowing pills. Because I wasn’t found in time, the drugs went all the way through my system. I woke up from a coma a week later seriously brain injured. Then, my ex-husband sued me for custody of our sons, won and immediately moved out of state with them. (You can read the full story here.)

While healing from the suicide attempt, I realized that I’d been torturing myself with all of the painful memories from my past. I was amazed to see that I was doing it to myself! While this point may be apparent to some, it was a huge “aha”  moment for me. I also realized that if I was doing it, I could stop it.

And I did just that.

I’m not suggesting that you can magically make the pain go away or the horrible memories disappear. I’m suggesting that you can choose not to torture yourself and make the pain grow stronger until it swallows you like I did and so many others do.  It really came down to me making the decision not to do this to myself anymore.

A Memory Is Changed Each Time You Remember It

Because of neuroplasticity, the ability of our brains to change both form and function based on repeated behaviors, emotions, and even thoughts, the more I dwelled on the sad memories, the more I reinforced them in my brain. Synapses, the connections between neurons, get more sensitive and new neurons grow when activated repeatedly together as happens when recalling a memory over and over.

Your brain also adds a subjective tint to your memories by subconsciously factoring in who you are and what you believe and feel at the time of recollection. At the most basic level, a memory is made up of the slight shifts in certain synapses within a specific sequence which incorporate the various elements that make up that memory. Every time you recall it, your brain reconsolidates this process incorporating and filtering it through who you are at the time of remembering. Each time you call up a memory, it is changed and grows more charged.

So, like the fish tale that grows with each telling, our memories mutate and take on more emotional charge each time we recall them. In his book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer writes:

Our memories are not like fiction. They are fiction.

So, the more depressed I got, the darker my memories became.

Pairing Painful Memories with Positive

The good news is that the reverse is also true. Neural connections that are relatively inactive wither away. You can consciously influence the process in reverse in a positive way so that the memories become less negatively charged. I made the memories stronger and sadder, and I could make them weaker and more loving.

Through mindfulness and meditation, I learned to become aware of and take control of my thoughts and mind. By realizing and working with my subconscious influences and consciously choosing which ones I allowed to impact me and intentionally inserting new ones, I changed my past.

Not literally, of course. But by pairing more positive thoughts and emotions with negative memories and feelings and modifying my perspective about past events, I changed the way I experienced them in the present.  With repetition, this practice altered the memories and neuronal paths in my brain.

The goal here is not to resist painful memories and grasp at positive ones instead. That’s almost impossible and leads to its own kind of suffering. The goal is to feel your emotions and acknowledge a painful memory, but then to consciously pair it with a more positive thought, memory, or feeling. This way, when your brain stores the memory, positive material gets associated with it.

Research shows that negative memories are especially vulnerable to being changed after they’re recalled. Over time, through neuroplasticity,  this practice will weaken the negative charge of the memories.

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.  

You Can Stop The Pain

If your head is filled with painful memories, I want you to know that you can change this. I did.

In any life, there’s always going to be pain, joy, and everything in between. Past, present, and future. Your experience of your life and your brain are shaped by what you choose to focus on. You can torture yourself with pain and anxiety or choose better feeling thoughts and memories.

It really is that simple. Simple, but not easy.

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  1. Michelle Cohen Reply

    Hi there. I like this. Can you provide an example? I recently had a breakup and I am really ruminating on the two times I most regret. One was I had him over the first time and my home was not guest ready… I had a sick cat, and it smelled bad. I have decided that made me less abx the memory brings me to tears. And I was also very emotional one time and I have morphed that to him thinking I am insane. How do I forgive myself? I think about it over and over and feel hopeless about deserving love. I make so many mistakes, I must be unlovable. How do I change my thinking on these memories.

  2. Well done Debbie…you came through some terribly experiences and found ways to deal with them that allowed your body and spirit to heal. that’s truly awesome. I think by intentionally intervening with new thoughts is key in making changes that last.

  3. I have managed to do this without even knowing I was doing it. Very rough marriage with lots of bad stuff happening to me. He is deceased now for nearly 23 years and I have replaced nearly all of the bad memories with better thoughts. I so wish my daughter would do the same thing, but she just keeps discussing it with many people. Now my birth family is concerned about me and why I didn’t share all of the stuff that happened. My life, my stuff.

  4. Hi Debbie,

    I have had my share of embarassing and painful memories and have had my own way of dealing with them. They do come back to haunt and I try hard to make some positive sense out them and then I let go. But they come back. In fact, learning to let go is the one thing I have learnt from playing these memories. There was a time when even that was very hard.
    Your website is a breath of fresh air because it tries to address the issue of dealing with debilitating memories in a scientific and objective manner. It did lift me out of my difficulty of addressing these memories with the thought that, “There is help there. And the best helper is our own brain.” It is the most comforting thought I have had in days.


    • Smitha,
      Thanks for your comment. I tortured myself with painful memories for years. I too was astonished at how I could reverse this. It seems so simple and it is. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. However, it is possible and so worth it. Even better – it does change your brain! 🙂 Keep at it! You’ll get there.

      • Hi Debbie,

        Thank you for publishing so much helpful information on how to heal a traumatized brain.

        I’ve suffered with anxiety and depression throughout my life and have survived both childhood and early adulthood trauma.

        Fortunately getting older and wiser has helped quite a bit —
        and practicing deep breathing, self-compassion and yoga helps too.

        But I’m always looking for new ways to heal, and I find your posts to be loaded with hope…🕯️🐨🕯️…maybe it’s how you share your personal experience, along with your knowledge about neuroscience…🤔whatever it is, I’m glad you survived Debbie, and that you are such an accomplished person!🌱

        Looking forward to more good news about healing from brain trauma. ✨🙂✨

        Judith Fisher M.Ed.
        Self Care Educator & Survivor

        • Thank you for your kind words, Judith. I am glad that you find my writings helpful and that you have discovered things that have helped you heal. Similarly, yoga, deep breathing, and gratitude have all changed my life for the better. I was fortunate to discover how to change my brain and my life on my own – by reading books, and I thought “Why did no (doctor, professional, fill in the blank…) ever teach me these things?” So, it is my goal to share it with others. 🙂

  5. Thank you for writing this. I’m so tired of reliving my horrors, so googled what to do. You were at the top, and at least I now have something I can start doing about it now.

  6. I found myself nodding in the affirmative while reading this whole article Debbie! There is a huge truth in the line that “none of us get out of this like unscathed”….the hurt I believe is where the light gets in 🙂

  7. I agree that it takes a moment of decision to say that enough is enough. Thanks for sharing about how you have helped yourself. As someone who helps others process negative memories so that they are no longer held hostage by them, I agree with what you said….the idea is not to resist the painful memories but to feel the emotions, and then change the energy around it with a positive association.

    The past is gone. Our memories is a mental construct. We certainly have the power to change our thoughts!

  8. Through pain we grow were the words that came to me as I read your story and the post
    When we can make the decision to move forward then we take back our power

  9. What if your were physically damaged? I was twice, and facing my damaged face is a torture – I can’t change my brain. The memory is always present.

  10. Thanks debby i have been able to conquer my awful memories through your advice thank you so much

  11. Very interesting article. Suffer fro depression and suicide attempts a few times. Hopefully do EMDR.

    • Christa,

      EMDR is proving very effective. I had a family member do it. It brings up a lot of stuff. So, it is not pretty – at first – but it does help in the end. Revisiting the past and reframing the situations really helped me heal some haunting wounds and memories. Keep trying things. You can change your brain, mental health, and life. It CAN get better. Keep at it. All the best to you.

  12. Thanks, really appreciate it, I’ve been looking for smth like this for so long.

  13. Robert Reppert Reply

    I wish there was a qualified EMDR person here. I lived in Iowa a few months and VA there was going to start me on that but I had to return to Nebraska abruptly where my therapist here isn’t trained in that. Once in a blue moon I’ll get memory triggered I don’t have to try to think, a month ago for instance one of moms suicide attempts that I stopped her from at 13 years played out like a ghost in the kitchen in front of me. I was having a good day then suddenly “hey remember this?!” Basket case but I’ve learned to call my inner safe people circle now. My friend came over right after work, my pastor came that night, my sister out of state picked up first ring. So I’ve learned to get help.

    • I’m glad you figured out a support system that works for you, Robert. I have heard of people doing EMDR virtually with therapist successfully. Perhaps that is an option worth looking into.

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