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Experiencing Painful Emotions—Over and Over Again
How the amygdala stores painful memories so
they feel like they're actually happening again.
By Peggy Vaughan

I have often written about the common problem of obsessively reviewing the painful memories of a partner's affair. Anyone who is dealing with this situation knows how it feels when you reflect on the affair and feel all the old emotions flooding back. That's the amygdala at work—since it's the repository of emotional memory.
(Note: The amygdalae are almond-shaped groups of neurons shown in research to perform a primary role in the processing of emotional reactions.)

Here's an excerpt from my Response to a previous question by someone who asked "When will it get better?"

When people are in pain over a partner's affair—it feels like it will never end. The thoughts, memories, or "flashbacks" to a time when our spouse was intimate with someone else is an inevitable part of the process. And while we can't prevent these thoughts from coming, we can make a difference both in their strength and their duration—if we refuse to feed the thoughts when they do come.

There's an old saying that "what you feed is what grows." So when these thoughts come, if you give in to them, go over and over the incident in your head, dwell and obsess about it for quite awhile—it only grows stronger. (Actually, reviewing a bad scene repeatedly in your head allows it to have the same physical/emotional impact as if it's actually happening again. The brain doesn't make a clear differentiation.)

Instead, when the thoughts come, you can deliberately focus on shifting your thoughts away toward whatever (anything) more positive about your current life or the prospects for the future. Of course, this is not magic and won't "work" the first time—but consistently shifting away instead of going deeper into the thoughts will gradually rob them of their power to create pain.

I also have an article on the website about "Getting Control of Anger and other Emotions" that addresses the issue of dealing with the painful memories. It's one of the few articles on the site that contains information written by someone else. In it, I quote from an excellent piece by Brent Atkinson, Ph.D. [a marriage and family therapist] titled The Emotional Imperative.

He describes how, whenever we feel anxious or threatened, the amygdala (our emergency alert system) 'hijacks' the brain and how the amygdala-triggered emotional information overwhelms logic and judgment.

The particularly useful part of that article, however, is the guidance about what you can do about the emotions. The author shows how "Little by little, the brain moves more toward 'comforting,' thereby reducing the power of the 'disturbing' emotions."
(I have included a link to this article near the end of this page.)

While knowing what to do about the emotions is the most critical piece of this subject, you're likely to be more motivated to take the necessary steps if you more fully understand the damage being done by continuing to allow the amygdala to control your reactions.

So I want to share another piece of writing (again, by someone other than myself) that provides more understanding of the impact of these triggered memories. The critical fact is that whenever a painful experience is 'remembered,' it leads to the body registering it as if it were actually happening again.

So every recollection and review of the painful memory reiniforces the pain, interfering with being able to get past it. In fact, a failure to get past this amygdala-controlled emotional trigger not only prevents recovery, but actually makes things worse. It's as if it's happening over and over and over again.

Below is an excerpt from another source that explains the process by which this 'reexperiencing' happens:

"Most of us are familiar with the phenomenon of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) Normally, when an experience is translated into memory, it's given a sort of "time tag," a mechanism that gives us the ability when we recall those experiences to send how long ago the events we recall occurred and a rough understanding of their temporal sequence.

"However, when traumatic events—those involving anxiety or pain—are stored in memory, the process is different. All bets are off. The amygdala is activated, and that memory is coded and stored differently. In effect, the "time tag" is removed—so that when the traumatic experiences are later recalled, they feel "present." And the memory has the ability to activate the fear response in the present moment—even though the trauma being remembered was a long time ago—because the intensity of the memory causes part of the brain to react as if the trauma were happening again right now.

"PTSD is the constant intrusion into the mind of traumatic memories and a reexperiencing of the events as if the event had just happened. As Dr. Ramachandran [Dr. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, one of the world's leading neuroscientists] has pointed out, it is this preoccupation with the trauma that can be so disabling.

"Even if we know intellectually that the events were long ago, the specialized and robust memory circuits in the fear centers of the brain reexperience the traumatic events when they are remembered and drive the same kinds of responses—such as a faster heartbeat and increased feelings of fear—that would be driven if the experiences were actually occurring at the time.

"Structural similarities between previous experiences and subsequent ones can cause the fear centers of the brain to pull memories forward and force them into the present moment. If a subsequent experience is even superficially similar to a traumatic memory, it can wield incredible power over emotions and can trigger the same fear responses evoked by the original trauma."

The above excerpt comes from an unlikely source—since it's a book not about relationships, but about the threats to "reason" (rational thinking). The book is The Assault on Reason by Al Gore.

The article to which I referred earlier in this piece (including ideas about what you can do to deal with these painful memories) is Getting Control of Anger and other Emotions.

You may also want to refer to a couple of other articles:
"Triggers" - Images, Memories, Flashbacks
Moving from Pain to Recovery.

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