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How To Beat the Memory-Anxiety Trap

Posted Mar 09 2009 4:27pm

The human brain as we all know is immensely complex.  It is also something that people don’t really understand and for this reason I won’t pretend like I know something you don’t know about the inner workings of this eight pound wonder.  Instead I want to point out something obvious that many of us neglect and as a result cause ourselves undue anxiety.

Of all the things I’ve learned about anxiety over the life of this blog, there is one idea that sticks out the most.  The idea is that there is a significant link between anxiety and our memories.  This is because memory, and specifically long term memory, is often the trigger that sets you on a collision course with nervousness.

Experts are not sure how memory works, but honestly it’s not the mechanics of memory that we’re worried about here.  Learning to reconcile our memories and anxiety is ultimately more significant for us.

Memory, like the brain, is also very complex.  A simple fragrance, or the smell of a certain food can bring back a flood of thoughts and feelings.  In this way if you smell something, see something, or think back to an anxious thought for no apparent reason this is often enough to trigger panic.

Earlier this afternoon I was sitting in my cubicle (like many others sadly) and I was fighting off a bout of anxiety due to some random memory recall I had.  During this mental struggle I did something I often do that helps me ward off what feels like impending anxiety and I want to share it with you.

My struggle was started by a ‘bad’ thought.  A random memory that jumped into my mind and it made me afraid.  It caused me fear because I remember days and even weeks of anxiety just before having such a thought in the past.  But recently, and today in particular, I refused to play that game.

The first thing you have to do in order to avoid anxiety in this case is recognize the situation.  Be mindful of the fact that it is a memory stirring these feelings in you.  This is important because it gives you a window of opportunity to stamp out the thought.

In my case I realized that my fear was tied to a random memory and several seconds afterward I confronted it.  I was at work so I could not get verbal, but in my mind I gently reminded myself of the obvious.  I reminded myself that this was just a memory, a thought, and that I don’t have to allow my mind to be enveloped by it.

Avoiding the memory-anxiety trap as I call it involves just two things, and those two things include the recognition I mentioned above, but also distraction.  Now distraction sounds easy but in fact it is very difficult to distract yourself when you know that this is what you’re trying to do.

That being said, you have to try and distract yourself the best you can.  Whatever it takes is my motto in this case.  Think about ‘happy’ times, a loved one, a favorite place, anything that produces good feelings.  And simultaneously (you didn’t think this would be easy right?) repeat to yourself a positive saying.

You must and I repeat must be persistent in the matter.  Don’t half try the effort.  I firmly believe that if you jump all over a bad thought or memory fast enough you can prevent anxiety from mounting further or at all.

Anxiety is tied to our memories in such a powerful way because we can remember all the times we felt bad, afraid, nervous, even pain while we were anxious at some point in the past.  These memories get stored in our long term memory and when recalled can do nothing less than start a panic attack.

Memory can cause you to tell yourself things like, “I’ve been in this restaurant before, and the last time I was here I had chest pain so what if…?” You unintentionally begin to make stuff up about how you think you’re going to die, or think your going to have a heart attack.

These negative thoughts and memories will come and go as long as we live.  But the key I think is to maintain control over these thought patterns.  You won’t always succeed at this either just so you know.  But that is more than o.k. because you will succeed sometimes.  And that could be just enough time to enjoy dinner, see a movie, have a drink, or not call in sick to work because of your nerves.  That alone would make it worth the effort.

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