Emotional Memories Creating Prisoners of the Past

“If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.”

Would you agree with this Buddhist saying? Let’s analyse its contents:

“Being depressed, anxious, at peace” are emotional states which get linked to specific time sections, e.g. the past and future causing negative feelings and the present a positive one. Not only does the sentence above split certain emotions into good or bad but also it puts them into spot on a timeline of life.

It conveys us a certain perception of defining reality as pleasant or unpleasant.

There are plenty of researches underlining differences in perception, a variety which describes the effect that differences in brain structure or factors such as culture, upbringing and environment have on the perception of humans. Yet, the main idea or concept of the sentence above has substance. It points out generalised, extreme emotions, but there are indeed plenty of people lost in negative feelings by nonstop dwelling in their past – may it be unsolved problems, traumatic experiences – or by being anxious about their future – mainly based on uncertainty and/or existential fear.

“The emotional brain responds to an event more quickly than the thinking brain.” – Daniel Goleman

The amygdala functions to evaluate stress by continuously monitoring situations for a fight or flight reaction following danger. The amygdala is the storage of dangerous stimuli and “negative” memories, for its useful function of sending out signals when receiving similar threats. (The Emotional Brain, Fear, and the Amygdala)

The reason for this is that negative events/memories, are implanted and retrieved more often in the brain due to what’s known as the fight or flight reaction caused by a release of stress hormones in the body at the time of the experience. These memories are termed as “emotional memories”. Once a memory is linked to an emotion, commonly a negative one involving stress and the fight or flight reaction, it is most likely to the long-term memory resulting through cognitive and neurological mechanisms that involve three key brain structures, known as the amygdala, hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, in combination playing an important role in retrieval of such emotional events.

The hippocampus involves storage and retrieval of long term memories and the prefrontal cortex carries the responsibility of rational thinking and decision making as well as being involved in the working memory, active/temporary processing of information (the short-term memory).

Understanding the fact that the brain is constantly using its experiences and memories to survive today and tomorrow, through these mechanisms, provides awareness of our behaviour and feelings of repetition in avoidance of an emotional event that we have already experienced. To be aware of mentally living in the past, and willing to stop and be in the present.

This new drive of thoughts or let’s say rebooting of the cognitive processes going on in our brain puts our mind in a different consciousness and this can be achieved due to neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change itself throughout life by forming new  neuronal connections. Basically, what’s meant in the sentence above when talking about a positive present state of being. Far behind the sensation of “being happy” or “at peace” it is to convey that we inherit the ability to shape our mind by being conscious beings. That doesn’t mean to deny any negative thoughts or to live after the new trend of positivism which is flooding the internet by the term of “Law of Attraction”, it just means “live, feel, constantly analyse and direct your thoughts, cultivate your mind, be aware of yourself.”

You might describe awareness as a constant moment of now, which also includes experiences and memories and yet to happen, calculative or potential possibilities – all three time categories merged in one point of conscious thinking, the fully awareness of the self about itself. And that’s a thing which must be learnt or let’s say cultivated by the mind actively. The individual perception gets filtered by the brain and it’s our choice how we experience or how we react to the outer world (and to our own inner world).

Emotions are colouring our thoughts, even of those individuals who perceive themselves as being only rational. Mindfulness can help awareness of reactions and pausing to consider all factors before responding. Although it’s worth considering that not all experiences can be overcome by simple mindfulness or without external help, in some cases such as post-traumatic stress disorder, an anxiety disorder when the hippocampus is not storing memories correctly, and the prefrontal cortex cannot override the hippocampus to tell the amygdala to calm down when there is no existing danger.

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