It’s natural for your mind to recall painful events. But if these thoughts are interfering with your everyday life, there are strategies that can help.
There may be some things you remember that you wish you didn’t.
Maybe you lost someone close to you, or there was a divorce you didn’t see coming, or you were let go from your job in a painful way.
It’s easy for these kinds of memories to keep you up at night. But there are some expert-backed ways to help you process and integrate painful experiences.
Can you suppress painful memories — block them from your mind? The concept of suppression and repression is a controversial one.
According to research from 2021, repression is a contentious topic in the field of psychology, not to be confused with suppression.
- Repression: This theory suggests that your brain can protect you from painful or traumatic events by hiding them from your conscious mind. Experts are still split on whether or not it’s possible to repress trauma.
- Suppression: The act of consciously reducing or avoiding difficult emotions as they arise — such as anger, fear, or grief — can be considered memory suppression, according to a
Memories we’re avoiding have a way of showing up at inopportune times in life if we try to stuff them down, says Heidi McBain, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Flower Mound, Texas.
“An example is when people become parents, which is often one of the biggest transitions in our lives,” McBain says. “If you or your partner have painful memories that haven’t been worked through, these may be re-triggered when you become a parent.”
For this reason, it’s recommended to face your feelings as they arise. “Create space to feel the feelings attached to these memories,” McBain suggests.
But if you’re experiencing flashbacks of events, it could be a symptom of PTSD. In this case, working with a healthcare or mental health professional can help manage your symptoms and regulate your nervous system until you can process memories in a safe environment.
If you’ve ever had an unwelcome memory play on repeat in your mind, you may have wished that the movie plot for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” was real — that you could go to a doctor’s office and simply have your painful memories erased.
If only it were that simple, right?
But your brain is a complex organ that works hard to keep you safe, diligently storing information that could be useful in the future.
During an emotionally charged experience, more areas of your brain light up with activity. Long after the experience is over, it can be difficult for your nervous system to return to a state of rest and digest.
When you live with trauma, for example, the amygdala (“fire alarm”) in your brain can’t differentiate between a threat back then and a threat right now, according to a 2018 study. Relieving a memory can make it feel real again.
Ruminating on negative experiences can keep you in a state of hypervigilance or emotional distress, especially when the memories are difficult to control.
“There can be many different reasons why it’s hard to forget painful memories, and this can differ greatly from person to person based on their own personal life experiences,” says McBain.
Frequently thinking about painful memories could be a symptom of:
Moving on takes time, but there are some strategies that may help.
Try to practice self-compassion
If possible, try to be gentle with yourself and practice self-compassion, says Dr. Holly Schiff, a clinical psychologist based in Greenwich, Connecticut.
“If you’re having a hard time letting go, it’s common to criticize yourself for not being able to do so, but instead, treat yourself like you would a friend,” she recommends.
This will mean something different for everyone, but this could include treating yourself lovingly when you’re experiencing pain and engaging in self-care, she explains.
“Taking care of yourself is of the utmost importance, and it also makes you feel more empowered.”
Try to create some distance
Creating distance is crucial when it comes to letting go and moving on from painful memories, says Schiff.
“Whether that’s physical distance from the person or situation or just psychological distance between yourself and the upsetting issue, it’s helpful because then your brain doesn’t have to think about it, process it, or be reminded of it as much.”
Distance could come in the form of:
- having a “letting go” ceremony
- limiting interactions with someone
- putting photos away for safekeeping
- removing physical reminders from your space
- taking a trip away for a few days
- temporarily deactivating social media
Allow yourself to feel your feelings
It can feel impossible to sit with negative emotions brought on by painful memories at times. In fact, it may feel easier to avoid them, but this could be counterproductive.
“Instead of allowing your feelings to flow, you shut them out, which actually disrupts the process of letting go,” explains Schiff.
Instead, try to allow yourself the space and time to sit with your emotions.
“Make the conscious decision to take control of the situation to let go and move on from a painful memory,” Schiff adds. “This can take time and practice, so be sure to celebrate the small victories along the way.”
Try to cultivate a mindfulness practice
Practicing mindfulness and bringing your focus to the present moment can help keep painful memories at bay, says Schiff.
“When you start to practice being present, the things that hurt you have less control over you,” she explains. “You actually have more freedom and agency to choose how you want to respond and what path you want to chart for yourself and your life.”
Some mindfulness practices may include:
Consider seeking the support of a therapist
You don’t have to do this alone. There are many types of therapy that may be helpful to you as you work through and process painful memories, says McBain.
“Depending on the person, individual talk therapy can be very helpful,” McBain adds. “Your therapist may use eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) or cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques during your sessions.”
EMDR is a technique that can help you safely process traumatic memories through a series of phases. After the preparation sessions, gentle taps (hands or knees), right then left, may be used to stimulate both sides of your brain to help you process and integrate the painful event.
While the mechanics behind this theory are often debated, this therapy can be useful for trauma and PTSD.
Another useful therapy for trauma is exposure therapy. During this therapy, you’ll be gradually guided toward processing and integrating an experience, little by little.
There’s a growing body of research that suggests that the body holds onto trauma in the body, so somatic therapies could be another option to help you cope. But more research on whether this approach can be helpful is needed.
You can use our search tools to find a therapist familiar with EMDR, trauma, or grief work.
Consider group therapy
If individual therapy doesn’t appeal to you, a group therapy session can help with individual work, says McBain.
“Sometimes couples counseling is also warranted, especially if the painful memories are negatively impacting your marriage or your relationship with your partner,” McBain says.
It can also be helpful to seek out a support group and join those who are going through a similar experience as you. Aside from knowing that you’re not alone in this, others may have resources and guidance to pass along.
Letting go of the past is hard.
Your brain is wired to imprint emotionally-charged experiences. Additionally, your nervous system can take a while to return back to its baseline homeostasis.
If you think your symptoms are caused by PTSD or another mental health condition, consider reaching out to a healthcare or mental health professional. With some support and self-care, it’s possible to integrate difficult experiences.
Moving on doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll forget what happened. But it does mean that you’ll fold the memories into the fabric of your life, so they can contribute to the person you are today.