Overcoming the Past: Why it’s Hard to Forget Bad Memories and How to Do It

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8 min readMar 19, 2024
Recurring long-time thoughts | By fancied facts

Traumatic experiences often leave deep emotional scars, making the journey of overcoming trauma a challenging one. The intensity of feelings involved in traumatic memories can make it hard to forget something that bothers you, as these experiences are overwhelming and directly tied to our sense of safety and well-being [1][2]. Moreover, the unresolved nature of these experiences, along with feelings of guilt or shame, underscores their lasting impact, signifying how traumatic memories continue to be a significant public health issue [2][3].

These challenges require a nuanced understanding of memory suppression, triggers, and how to get over the past. The path to how to forget bad memories and how to lose your memory of distressing events involves both confronting and managing the aftereffects of trauma. Overcoming trauma is not only about learning to navigate the waters of memory suppression but also about harnessing the potential treatments and therapies that offer a way forward [2][3]. By exploring these avenues, the following discussion will delve into why some traumatic memories linger and how to embark on a journey of healing and recovery.

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The Nature of Traumatic Memories

Understanding the intricate nature of traumatic memories is crucial for navigating the path to healing. Here are key insights into how these memories form and persist:

  1. Formation of Traumatic Memories: Memories are created through neuronal connections. The more you dwell on memory, the stronger these connections become [4]. Traumatic memories, both explicit (conscious) and implicit (unconscious), are vivid and intrusive, often consisting of sensory representations like images, sounds, or smells [5][8]. This vividness and the involuntary recall of traumatic events, triggered by similar perceptual cues, make these memories particularly distressing [8].
  2. Storage and Recall: Traumatic memories are stored differently in the brain. They are imprinted into the amygdala, focusing on the emotional significance rather than being time-stamped in the hippocampus. This leads to vividly detailed memories and easily triggered [9][10]. Memories during trauma are encoded with gaps, focusing attention on specific details, which explains the clear memories of certain aspects and blurry memories of others [11].
  3. Impact and Management: Traumatic memories have unique properties, including ‘nowness,’ immutability, and fragmentation, affecting one’s appraisal of an event [8]. They can be re-experienced as flashbacks or nightmares, accompanied by high levels of emotion even without explicit recall [8]. Understanding these aspects is vital in addressing the far-reaching effects of traumatic events on psychological and physical health, including PTSD, which can stem from both single incident and chronic traumas [3].
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The Role of the Brain in Remembering Trauma

In understanding how the brain processes and retains traumatic memories, several fundamental mechanisms come into play:

  1. Memory Reconsolidation and Suppression:
  • Every time a memory is recalled, the brain engages in a process called memory reconsolidation, which essentially rewires that memory. By recalling a memory in a safe environment and actively attempting to alter its emotional impact, one can reduce the trauma associated with it [15].
  • The think/no-think paradigm suggests that intentionally interrupting memory recall can weaken the neural connections responsible for that memory, thereby diminishing its presence in our conscious mind [15].

2. Brain Regions and Their Roles:

  • The amygdala, known for processing emotions and fear, plays a critical role in the persistence of traumatic memories by storing them in an emotionally charged state [1].
  • The hippocampus, while responsible for forming new memories, becomes hyperactive during trauma, enhancing the vividness and longevity of these memories. However, it may not function effectively during trauma, leading to improperly stored memories [1][16].
  • Traumatic stress alters the functionality of key brain areas such as the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex, leading to changes that can persist long after the traumatic event has passed [20].

3. Neurotransmitters and Stress Responses:

  • Traumatic memories alter the brain’s neurotransmitter pathways through glutamate and GABA, which regulate emotional responses and excitability levels. Glutamate is involved in storing memories, while GABA helps to calm the brain [19].
  • Following a traumatic event, there’s an increase in cortisol and norepinephrine responses to stress, which are associated with changes in the brain’s structure and function, particularly in individuals with PTSD [20].

Why Some Trauma Lingers While Other Memories Fade

Understanding why some traumatic memories linger while others fade requires a closer look into the body’s response to trauma and the nature of memory itself:

  • The Body’s Stress Response:

During a traumatic event, the body’s stress response is activated, releasing stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones play a crucial role in enhancing the consolidation of memories associated with the trauma, making them more vivid and more challenging to forget [1].

  • Avoidance Behaviors:

Often, individuals may engage in avoidance behaviors, steering clear of situations or stimuli that remind them of the traumatic event. This avoidance can inadvertently strengthen the traumatic memory, as it prevents the processing and integration of the memory into one’s standard cognitive framework [1].

  • Memory Reactivation and Modification:
  1. Reactivated memories are vulnerable to modification. If these memories are recalled in stressful situations, the potential for re-traumatization increases, further embedding the traumatic memory [5].
  2. Traumatic memories stored in the subconscious can be triggered by specific stimuli, leading to both psychological and physiological symptoms. This can create a cycle of distressing memories and powerful emotional responses, making it difficult to contextualize the memory and move past it [22].
  3. Effective management of traumatic intrusions involves reducing the distress associated with the memories. This allows the hippocampus to activate sufficiently to form the necessary brain connections, helping to put the traumatic experience into perspective and begin the healing process [21].

Understanding these mechanisms highlights the complex interplay between physiological responses to trauma and memory formation, providing insight into why forgetting bad memories can be a challenging endeavor.

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Suppressing Unwanted Memories

In exploring ways to suppress unwanted memories, several therapeutic approaches stand out for their effectiveness:

  1. Exposure Therapy:

This method involves safely confronting the fears associated with traumatic memories. By facing these memories in a controlled environment, individuals can learn coping strategies to manage their reactions [23].

2. Medication:

Propranolol, a beta-blocker, has shown promise in reducing symptoms associated with PTSD. It works by mitigating the body’s stress responses, potentially easing the recall of traumatic memories [23].

3. Psychotherapeutic Techniques:

  • EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) Aims to lessen the emotional pain of traumatic memories through guided eye movements, helping to process and integrate traumatic experiences more healthily [23].
  • Trauma-Based Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Focuses on understanding and changing the thought patterns related to trauma, fostering healing and resilience [24].
  • The HEAL Method: A four-step process designed to transition the brain from negative to positive emotional states, promoting emotional healing [24].

Additionally, recognizing and managing triggers is crucial. Self-monitoring and being mindful of thoughts and emotions can empower individuals to control their responses to memory triggers. Coping mechanisms such as mindfulness and seeking professional help are vital components of a comprehensive strategy to manage traumatic memories [18].

Potential Treatments and Therapies

When exploring potential treatments and therapies for overcoming traumatic memories, it’s essential to consider a multi-faceted approach that includes both psychotherapy and medication tailored to individual needs:

  1. Psychotherapy Options:
  • Cognitive Therapy: Focuses on identifying and changing distorted or troubling thought patterns [26].
  • Exposure Therapy: Involves facing and controlling fears by exposing the patient to trauma reminders in a safe environment [26].
  • EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing): Utilizes guided eye movements to lessen the emotional impact of traumatic memories [26].

2. Medication:

  • Antidepressants and Antianxiety Medications: Help manage symptoms of PTSD by altering brain chemistry [26].
  • Prazosin: Specifically targets nightmares and sleep disturbances related to PTSD [26].
  • Note: The use of benzodiazepines is discouraged due to potential dependency issues [27].

3. Additional Coping Strategies:

  • Adherence to Treatment Plans: Ensures consistency and progress in therapy [26].
  • Self-care and Mindfulness: Prioritizing physical and mental health through activities like exercise, meditation, and adequate rest [26].
  • Breaking the Cycle of Avoidance: Encourages confronting rather than avoiding trauma-related triggers, which can reinforce the trauma [26].

This comprehensive approach, combining therapy, medication, and self-care strategies, offers a holistic path toward healing and managing traumatic memories.

Final Words

Navigating the labyrinth of traumatic memories and their persistent hold on the psyche requires an intricate understanding of their formation, storage, and the neuroscience behind our recall mechanisms. Exploring memory suppression techniques, therapeutic interventions, and coping strategies underscores a multifaceted approach to tackling the echoes of past traumas. Overcoming these memories is not merely about forgetting but about relearning how to process and integrate these experiences into one’s narrative, fostering resilience and facilitating a journey toward healing.


[1] — https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/12/161209081154.htm
[2] — https://heartandoaktherapy.com/heart-oak-blog/2018/5/21/past-trauma-5-reasons-why-you-cant-just-get-over-it
[3] — https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181584/
[4] — https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/251655
[5] — https://www.michiganmedicine.org/health-lab/traumatic-memory-can-be-near-impossible-shake
[6] — https://news.northwestern.edu/stories/2015/08/traumatic-memories-hide-retrieve-them/
[7] — https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9789-dissociative-amnesia
[8] — https://www.psychologytools.com/resource/properties-of-trauma-memories/
[9] — https://www.phoenix-society.org/resources/calming-trauma
[10] — https://cptsdfoundation.org/2023/01/20/trauma-and-its-effect-on-the-brain/
[11] — https://www.unco.edu/assault-survivors-advocacy-program/learn_more/neurobiology_of_trauma.aspx
[12] — https://www.nytimes.com/2023/11/30/health/ptsd-memories-brain-trauma.html
[13] — https://integrativepsych.co/new-blog/trauma-memory-long-island
[14] — https://www.quora.com/Why-do-certain-traumas-or-experiences-imprint-so-vividly-in-our-memories-while-other-significant-events-fade
[15] — https://www.healthline.com/health/how-to-forget-something
[16] — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traumatic_memories
[17] — https://www.mountsinai.org/about/newsroom/2023/traumatic-memories-are-represented-differently-than-regular-sad-memories-in-the-brains-of-people-with-ptsd-new-research-shows
[18] — https://terrikozlowski.com/traumatic-memories/
[19] — https://news.feinberg.northwestern.edu/2015/08/17/how-traumatic-memories-hide-in-the-brain/
[20] — https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181836/
[21] — https://www.octc.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Understanding-traumatic-intrusions-OCTC-practical-guide.pdf
[22] — http://nwkpsych.rutgers.edu/~kharber/publications/Harber.&.Pennebaker.1992.Overcoming%20Traumatic%20Memories.pdf
[23] — https://healthmatch.io/ptsd/how-to-deal-with-traumatic-memories
[24] — https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/four-steps-to-erasing-trauma-of-painful-memories-061214/
[25] — https://www.awakeningstreatment.com/blog/stop-reliving-painful-memories/
[26] — https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20355973
[27] — https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8672952/
[28] — https://rcchicago.org/5-effective-trauma-therapy-methods/
[29] — https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/treatments/22641-emdr-therapy
[30] — https://therapyinanutshell.com/4-ways-to-heal-from-your-past-traumatic-memories-part-2/



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