Your nervous system holds your painful memories. Understand why and how you can release them
By Denise Wade Ph.D.
Do you find yourself remembering how great it used to be? Perhaps it’s the memory of a loved one, or the hurtful memory attached to betrayal from someone you trusted. The pain won’t seem to lessen over time. What do you do with this emotional burden? How do you release this crippling memory that keeps you from loving or trusting again?
Did you know that your nervous system has a memory? Every cell in your spine and everything throughout your entire nervous system has cellular memory. Your emotions are connected to this unique structure through your limbic system. The limbic system is responsible for interpreting emotional responses, regulating hormones, and storing memories. The amygdala, an almond shaped mass of brain cells, determines which memories are stored. Some painful events are stored in the brain and some in the body, depending on the emotional response and the intensity a memory or painful event evokes.
For instance, if a past partner cheated on you, most likely the intensity of the hurt is so painful that the limbic system stores it in your hypothalamus. This is the emotional center, the busiest part of the brain, the seat of all emotional activity. The hypothalamus and the amygdala get to work and connect any smells, sights, sounds, tastes, and associations to that painful memory or person involved.
Each time you experience any of the associations with this memory, such as the smell of his or her cologne, the hypothalamus causes you to have an emotional reaction (anger, hate, sadness, fear) and a physical reaction (increased heart rate, sweating, nausea, decreased appetite, rapid breathing). This is the mind’s survival mechanism against perceived threats.
In the beginning of new relationships, your brain “overrides” this protection mechanism with happy chemicals like dopamine. This enables you to prematurely trust your partner easily, without making him or her earn that trust. This sets you up for betrayal. At this point, you may unconsciously abandon your own physical or emotional needs, which may set you up for neglect or abandonment from your partner, as we train others how to treat us, by how we treat ourselves.
When the hypothalamus becomes unbalanced, so do the pituitary glands it regulates, which is responsible for releasing oxytocin, the bonding chemical. Many times we are fooled into experiencing the relationship better or remembering a relationship as better than the actuality, due to the unbalanced hypothalamus. In reality, the attachment was often from the addictive chemical high of the relationship and not the actual person.
Basically, the hypothalamus and the amygdala are partners that generate and connect learned emotional responses. They mostly respond to stimuli related to fear and pain. Let’s go back to the example of your partner’s infidelity. This created a learned fear of being betrayed. So each time you perceive betrayal by a familiar smell of your ex’s cologne, a familiar sight of your ex’s picture, a familiar sound, such as your favorite song, your mind reacts with fear and pain. Your body may react with sweating, increased heart rate, and loss of appetite. You relive that same experience all over again.
Your natural survival mode leads you to run from relationships and love, or to protect yourself, get angry, and confront this person. This is the primitive fight or flight response. This is not isolated to intimate relationships. This can be a parent/child relationship, a friendship, or working relationship. Below is an exercise to shift emotional responses and reactions conditioned with certain people or memories.
1) Think of the experience. Remember the pain, hurt, or memory you are struggling to get over or let go of. Write it down. The act of writing in itself helps to release a small portion of this pain. If you don’t like to write, you could talk about it and record it on a tape recorder, and then listen to yourself.
2) What positive attribute did that relationship represent to you?
Comfort Surrogate Parent
Admiration Shared Values
3) Acknowledge that you may feel vulnerable, scared, fearful, or powerless. That’s where anger, hurt, and pain originate. None of us want to feel disempowered, certainly not to an insensitive person that may have taken advantage of the relationship. Now what is at the core of that fear, vulnerability, or anger? What past experience? It may be rooted in a childhood experience. Be very open and honest with yourself. No one will have access to this information but you.
4) Now, being very honest with yourself, what is your unmet emotional need behind this? It could be a childhood need that has never been met or a need that has developed in adulthood. Allow yourself to experience familiar senses associated with the pain of this memory and the one you are trying to release: sights (photo/ memory/ place or location), sounds (song/music), smells (cologne/ soaps/deodorant/perfume), tastes (food/ drink), or touch (texture).
Allow yourself to cry, release anger, swear, hate, feel the pain, or whatever you need to do to release these painful memories. Go through the stages of anger, denial, sadness, and depression. This is grieving. You must grieve to release the pain. Then, when you’re ready, attach a new pleasurable thought to these sensory reminders.
5) Looking back at the relationship, how were you “at choice” and not a victim of what happened? It’s okay to acknowledge that this person may have hurt you, taken advantage of you, stolen from you, betrayed you, controlled you, manipulated you, or lied to you. Now that you are wiser, from your empowered adult self, ask yourself how you may have been “at choice” at the time they hurt you, but were not aware.
Did you give away your power too soon by over-loving? Give away your trust too early? Allow yourself to be taken advantage of by an unsafe person by over-giving? Give away sex too early? Self abandon your own needs to get or keep this partner? Compromise or settle for poor behavior during the relationship that you knew was wrong? Or perhaps you were on the receiving end and took advantage and that ruined the relationship. Did you overtake and give nothing back? Neglect this person to the point of losing him or her?
The most powerful tool you own is in accepting the fact that you have choices in all your relationships. This is empowerment. By staying stuck in the victim role, you remain disempowered. No one can control you, take advantage of you, compromise you, or betray you, unless you allow it. You are at choice.
Copyright © 2011 by Denise Wade, Ph.D. All rights reserved in all media. Used with permission.
Denise Wade Ph.D. CMRC is a Transformational Author, Researcher, and Relationship Expert. Denise empowers, teaches individuals to release emotional baggage, heal past pains, identify unhealthy relationship patterns and triggers, and be seen and heard in all their relationships. She is passionate about helping women create positive, loving, long lasting relationships. www.sweetharmony.net