By Jan Bruce
Oh, those summer nights!
The classic line from the movie Grease captures the magic of summer memories, for sure -- playing in the ocean, long lazy suppers while the sun goes down. But even summer isn't all romance and fun. Like every other part of your life, this season can trigger difficult memories, too -- say, the year your father was crushed because he couldn't afford to take your family on vacation.
Of course, painful memories are completely normal. But when the stress associated with them hinders your life right now (such as clinging to the fear that you can't or won't be able to afford anything for yourself because your father couldn't) -- that's a problem. The good news is that you can learn to channel the positive memories and turn down the volume on the negative ones. New neuroscience research has shown that your brain is, in fact, designed to do just that.
According to a recent article in Inc. magazine, your brain "rewires" synapses every time you call up a memory. In other words, your brain doesn't lay down a track during the original experience and then play that same track over and over again. Instead, Inc. reports, "when you remember something you are re-creating, changing, and re-memorizing. The memory is subject to change every time you remember it."
So if you remember a difficult experience, then challenge the negative thoughts and feelings around it, you can literally edit your brain to trigger less suffering. Conversely, you can strengthen positive memories to support you. (At meQuilibrium, we use the same strategy for dealing with negative and positive Iceberg Beliefs, the ideas we have about the world that are so big they control us.)
Try this: the next time you feel a stressful memory dragging you down.
Put Your Imagination to Work
Inc. points to a visualization technique popularized by motivational speaker Tony Robbins for breaking the grip of a stressful memory. Don't be fooled by its simplicity; you're using the power of your imagination to shift how your brain retrieves this information.
- Bring a negative memory into awareness, then picture it getting smaller and smaller, as if on the screen of a smartphone.
- Scramble the details. For example, if you're remembering your dad getting angry over supper, imagine him in one of those cheesehead hats fans wear at Green Bay Packers football games.
- Do this several times with the memory, scrambling different details with each remembrance, until you notice that it carries less sting.*
Make a Positive Memory List
The positive memories are there for the taking; you just need to call them out and recalibrate your brain to attune to moments and experiences of happiness.
- Ask yourself, "What are three good memories that come to mind?" They can be big, such as a trip to the Grand Canyon, or small: the day you made the best grilled cheese sandwiches ever.
- Write them down. (Make a habit of writing down three to five different positive memories every day. This leads you to actively call forth new ones.)
- As you read over your memory list, notice your body, your mind, and your behavior. Your breathing may be deeper and your muscles relaxed. Your mind may feel soothed. Your behavior will reflect this calm.
You'll experience more happy memories, and feel the stress of negative ones less, the more you work on your mind. As for new memories? Chance are you'll be singing come fall, Oh, those sweet summer nights!
*A shout-out to any Harry Potter readers who recognize this technique as the Riddikulus charm for disarming boggarts.
Jan Bruce is CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium, the new digital coaching system for stress, which helps both individuals and corporations achieve measurable results in stress management and wellness.
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