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Suppress Your True Emotions Often? Science Says It Can Seriously Harm Your Memory

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Suppress Your True Emotions Often? Science Says It Can Seriously Harm Your Memory

Think back to one of the best days of your life as a child. Close your eyes and visualize that experience– go ahead, I’ll wait… What did you see?

Flashbulb Memories

So why is it that we can recall events happening years earlier in such precise and vivid detail? This particular phenomenon has intrigued and perplexed cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists for decades. Research has found that our emotional state at the time of an event, can affect our ability to memorize its details.

In 1977, researchers at Harvard [1] published a paper entitled Flashbulb Memories [2] in which psychologists Roger Brown, Ph.D., and James Kulik, Ph.D. noted that people are often able to vividly recollect where they were when an event occurred that was significant to them. The doctors hypothesized that these memories are so emotionally important to us that they’re recorded in our minds as vividly, completely and accurately as a photograph.

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Emotions–good and bad–assist with mental recall

It is amazing how our minds can awaken emotional memories [3] of passionate and unsullied love, pride in accomplishments, or the joy experienced during a particularly poignant event such as the birth of a child. Unfortunately, memories of things we’d rather forget seem to have greater intensity than the pleasant ones. Emotions, good or bad are a way of framing an event and holding on to it indefinitely.

This is why suppressing emotions or limiting your ability to feel during certain times can inhibit your ability to recall important events. Some research points to the fact that when people work to control their reactions to emotional events[4], their memory of the event is affected. Emotional distance keeps you disengaged, not only in the moment but also long term.

Being emotionally inexpressive doesn’t necessarily doom you to a life of dullness with no memories of good times–if you conscientiously practice becoming in tune with your emotions:

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1. Journal how you feel

When something significant happens and you feel “some kind of way,” journal [5] your thoughts and from that, your true feelings will emerge. Recording emotions in writing not only helps with long term memory but it also assists with cognitively processing difficult or complex events.

A journal acts as a free therapist and provides a judgment-free zone for expressing your reactions. It becomes “someone” with whom you can freely express your feelings. Using a journal to self-express can relieve anxiety, help you to understand negative emotional triggers, and resolve problems in your daily life.

2. Express how you feel in your daily conversations

Using “feeling statements” [6] to express how you feel in everyday contexts that are not high stakes and are non-threatening is a great way to become aware of how you are feeling, take ownership of your feelings and express them verbally to others for more effective communication.

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To begin, state your feelings upfront using the words “I feel____.” Once the feeling is identified and stated, it should be connected to an issue or event. And then, when warranted, a solution should be offered–the solution does not necessarily have to be a viable one. Ideally, this allows the other listeners to focus on helping to alleviate the discomfort, rather than defending him or herself.

3. Re-frame negative emotions in a positive light

Or to put it another way, “find the silver lining.” Unfortunately, negative emotions are more powerful and stay with us longer than positive ones. Being able to first understand and own how you feel is important to being able to view it differently. Find the optimistic point of view in an otherwise negative situation. This takes practice and is not easy to do initially.

In the initial stages, this can most effectively be done through journaling. Then as time progresses, you will have retrained your brain to do this automatically and your memories of negative experiences are present but the intensity is lower.

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Emotional memories are powerful and serve to guide and inform us as we navigate the present and prepare for the future. They can inform you of a fundamental truth that you don’t want to acknowledge, help you from repeating mistakes, and allow you to relive the best times of your life.

Reference

[1] http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/schacterlab/files/hirst_etal_jepgeneral_2015.pdf
[2] https://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/09/memories.aspx
[3] https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/memory
[4] http://www.memory-key.com/memory/emotion
[5] http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2012/05/02/4-journaling-exercises-to-help-you-manage-your-emotions/
[6] https://www.verywell.com/what-are-feeling-statements-425163

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