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Why Our Unconscious Rules Us and What to Do About It

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One of the common denominators of people who enter therapy is the feeling of being "stuck" in some way. Often there is the feeling of not being able to break out of a set of behaviors, feelings or thoughts. People know "it should be different," but can't seem to get things to really change for themselves. Their moods may come and go, but somehow they keep slipping back into old patterns. Regardless of the number of accomplishments, feelings of not being good enough still arise. Regardless of how spiritual, feelings of anxiety emerge. Regardless of how hard they try, up comes the sense of being out of control. So where do these feelings generally come from? The simple answer is from the memories that form our unconscious mind.

The experiences we've had in life are stored in networks of brain cells called neurons. These networks determine how we interpret new experiences, and our moment-to-moment feelings. When something happens in the present, it automatically links into our preexisting memory networks, and we respond accordingly. So, for example, when we meet someone new, we may find ourselves liking or disliking the person based partially upon other people we've encountered in the past who are similar in some way. These automatic responses occur because the brain is geared to link up whatever happens in the present with our memories of past experiences in order to make sense of the world. If I'd never seen a cup, I'd have no idea what to do with it. If I have previous experiences with cups then I may simply reach out to use it. I don't have to think it through. I don't have conscious images of other cups I've seen before. It's just a natural, automatic reaction based upon my memory networks. However, if I'd been hit on the head repeatedly with a cup, I may have a negative reaction to it without consciously knowing why. And when negative feelings like "I'm not good enough" emerge in different situations, the reasons are the same. My memory networks are shaping my current reactions in the world.

The memories stored in our brain are either processed or unprocessed. If they are processed, it means that the brain has done its job and integrated a learning experience into our memory networks. Something happened that was disturbing, but I learned what I needed from it. I fight with a family member and I have a negative emotional and body reaction, but time passes and I think about it, talk about it, dream about it, and soon it doesn't bother me any more. The appropriate connections are made in my brain and I might realize: "He's been going through a hard time. We've had rough spots before and worked them out." I decide what action to take and I feel better. In my memory network, what is useful is stored and what's useless -- like the feelings of anxiety or anger -- is gone.

That is what the brain is geared to do: make the appropriate connections, "digest" the experience and store it in memory. But sometimes an experience can be so disturbing that the information processing system of the brain becomes imbalanced. When that happens, the experience is stored in an "unprocessed" form and still contains the emotions, physical sensations and beliefs that occurred at the time of the original event. So when I see the person again, instead of feeling OK, I have the same feeling of anger, hurt and anxiety.

What's important here is that just the sight of the person can trigger the feelings, even years later, whether I consciously remember the fight or not. The negative feelings automatically arise from my unconscious memory connections. The brain is just doing its job, but unfortunately, the automatic connections are being made from unprocessed, rather than processed memories. That's why numerous divorces occur. The painful unprocessed past experiences (affairs, fights, disappointments) continue to get triggered and don't let the partners reconcile.

The examples of unprocessed memories I used in previous blogs involved traumas that are used to diagnose post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But recent research has clearly shown that many kinds of life experiences, even if it is not a "major trauma," can cause the same types of responses. Of course, sometimes there are organic/hereditary factors that make us more susceptible to certain kinds of problems. But even in those instances, the research generally indicates that experiences are also involved. And any experience that was sufficiently disturbing can get locked into our memory networks as an unprocessed memory.

For instance, being bullied or humiliated as a child is often associated with strong reactions related to "survival fear." It's the equivalent of being "cut out of the herd," which on an evolutionary level means death. So, if your body tightens or you have visceral negative emotions arising when you think of a time you were humiliated in school, that memory is still unprocessed. If you go into a similar situation as an adult, the same negative feelings may arise. For instance, some surveys show that fear of public speaking in the U.S. is even higher on the list than a fear of death. That's often an example of unprocessed memories from childhood stored in the brain, with emotions arising from the unconscious connections and running the show.

Sometimes our negative reactions may take the form of low-grade "misery" emerging at certain times. But sometimes our responses can be extreme and define the way we view ourselves. Here's an example from my book Getting Past Your Past:

Stephanie hadn't been able to work for two years because she thought her coworkers were contemptuous of her. She was sure she smelled because of excessive sweating, even though she bathed twice a day, frequently changed her underwear, and used lots of powder and deodorant. She couldn't bear to be in social situations because she thought people were talking about her. Over the past 15 years she'd had a number of hospitalizations because of thoughts of suicide and was on three different medications.

Stephanie suffered from a diagnosis known as body dysmorphic disorder. The symptoms are sometimes misdiagnosed, because the negative beliefs involving an imagined body flaw are seen as a "delusion." However, what we've found with EMDR therapy is that, once again, it is simply evidence of an unprocessed childhood memory at work. We use specific techniques to identify the source of the problem, and Stephanie remembered what had caused her suffering:

She was 12 years old and she'd brought in food as her teacher had instructed for her Friday cooking class. Unfortunately the class was cancelled. Returning to school on Monday, she went to her gym locker and took out the bag she thought contained her gym clothes. When she opened it, the room was filled with the odor of rotting fish -- the food she'd forgotten and left over the weekend after the cancelled cooking class. Her schoolmates made fun of her, accusing her of dirty underwear. Then she was sent to the principal, who scolded her for poor hygiene.

This event had been stored in her brain. It took only three sessions to process the memory and all the symptoms disappeared and remained gone five years later. It's not unusual. EMDR therapy results with similar cases were published in the journal, Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy. Decades of suffering had been caused by a childhood event that was profoundly disturbing at the time but had been subsequently forgotten. This happens all the time.

So, the bottom line is that whether your personal problem seems big or small, there is a likelihood that unprocessed memories are at work. The unconscious isn't really such a murky place after all. It's simply cause-and-effect reactions that you can learn to identify and take steps to master.

References:

Brown, K. W., McGoldrick, T., & Buchanan, R. (1997). Body dysmorphic disorder: Seven cases treated with eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 25, 203-207.

Mol, S. S. L., Arntz, A., Metsemakers, J. F. M., Dinant, G., Vilters-Van Montfort, P. A. P., & Knottnerus, A. (2005). Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after non-traumatic events: Evidence from an open population study. British Journal of Psychiatry, 186, 494-499.

Obradovic´, J., Bush, N.R., Stamperdahl, J., Adler, N.E. & Boyce, W.T. (2010). Biological sensitivity to context: The interactive effects of stress reactivity and family adversity on socioemotional behavior and school readiness. Child Development, 1, 270-289.

Shapiro, F. (2012). Getting past your past: Take control of your life with self-help techniques from EMDR therapy. New York: Rodale

For more information on the EMDR Institute, visit http://www.emdr.com.

For more about the EMDR Humanitarian Assistance Programs, visit http://www.emdrhap.org.

For more by Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., click here.

For more on PTSD, click here.

Read more: "Married to a Veteran: When Memories of Past Interrupt the Present"

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