Are Memories Bad For Your Health?

Dan Bolton


Where does anxiety come from? Current thought points to a combination of genetics and environmental influences. But what does this cliche synopsis really mean? Anxiety can be genetic, but research shows genetics accounts for about half the responsibility at best. We all have a certain amount of normal anxiety which allows us to be socially responsible beings. One of the practical functions of anxiety is impulse control (in fact the different parts of the brain responsible for impulse control and regulation of anxiety are interconnected). On a more pathological level anxiety can disrupt our lives. On this side of the spectrum anxiety weights selective attention to Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) which inhibit a person from taking effective action based on anticipation of a negative outcome. This anticipation of something bad happening is not based on any real evidence in the present other than the feeling of anxiety which finds it’s root in this kernel of negative thought. Such negative thoughts may be sourced in conscious or even subconscious memories of bad experiences in the past, traumatic experiences, as well as parental messages that warned us of danger or negative consequences, or anxiety that captivated our attention, during a time we were susceptible to their negative thought loops and feeling states, not yet able to think critically for ourselves. 

A mentor of mine once said emotions related to anxiety are determined by how you relate to time. In psychology the concept of time references our past, and we experience our past through memories. Memories can distort our experience of the present moment, so much so that sometimes we become stuck in the past and let it determine how we think about a completely new situation or even dictate our present identity. Pain doesn’t exist except in your memory and anticipation. If you’ve ever had a bad experience, whether you are aware of it or not, this memory will haunt your experience of the present, like some sort of low level background noise (but because of all of the noise our daily lives are surrounded by we aren’t immediately aware of it and some people). This creates how we see the future, so we spend this potentially blissful moment lamenting a future that hasn’t even happened yet- that is pain. If you could get rid of your memories and anticipations your present moment could be just incredibly joyful.

Memories are encoded by a particular neural pathway or pathways that connect potentially distal brain regions. The connections our brains make naturally between neurons of different areas of the brain solidify our experiences as memories. Whenever we experience a new situation we know nothing about we access what we know, what we are familiar with. Our brain cycles through already established neural pathways to gather information to prepare us for the experience at hand. But this could be really bad information and lead us in the wrong direction, anticipating a completely new experience to turn out the same way past similar experiences have turned out. Although this is a survival mechanism that could come in handy, it could be completely nonconstructive because it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy which directs the outcome in the direction we, or namely our past experience, predicts. This is so limiting to our potential, particular if this signal anxiety has transformed into a belief of an inability to do something or some form of weakness or reluctance. These are often referred to as self-limiting beliefs.

I am not saying all memories should be eradicated. Memories are an inescapable part of the human experience. Good or bad take them for what they are. A relic of the past that could provide useful information, but they do not have to determine the present moment, define a new experience, or dictate who you are.

The good news is that neurons do grow new connections (called neurites) to consolidate new knowledge. Learning is a continual process and involves plasticity of neurons as we grow and acquire new knowledge. Through conscious effort and putting yourself through new experiences your brain can unlearn these old feelings and beliefs. 

Fear- what are you going to do with it? Accept that it is here, face it, and go through it. It’s not going away until you face it. Do the thing you are afraid to do. Allow yourself the possibility of a new experience. This is the best way to conquer that fear. In the field it is called exposure therapy. This new experience of a situation you previously feared or felt anxious in will create new neural pathways as neurons develop new connections. These new neuronal connections will begin to shape how you think about the previously anxiety provoking situation in a different way. Little by little deepen your exposure to these pressures, taking yourself further each time. Get your body accustomed to the pressures it is experiencing. Allow your mind to begin to settle into this new experience. If your anxiety is significant or intense enough you may want to seek professional support to guide you through a more formal exposure therapy with a therapist overseeing your work.

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Suggested reading:

1) Stuck with Women:,_LMHC/Blog/Entries/2011/12/29_Stuck_with_Women.html#