If you have anxiety, you will be very familiar with the seemingly endless cycle of replaying a stressful situation over and over again as you analyse, cringe, rationalise, repeat. This process can end up giving this memory far more gravitas than it deserves. By recalling the memory multiple times, you have created strong neural pathways making this a prominent memory that is easy to recall. Think of it like a footpath – if the path is barely used it becomes overgrown and difficult to navigate and see. It’s patchy. It takes effort to find what you are looking for. Now think of a footpath that is regularly used. The path widens and becomes well established so even if it isn’t used for a short time, the path will still remain. If it isn’t used for a long time, an impression of the path will still remain making it possible to find what you are looking for.
So how can this exaggerate the memory? Well because this memory is easily recalled, your associations with it are also easily recalled. The way you felt. The physical symptoms of anxiety. The way you believed others felt. These real feelings aren’t necessarily exaggerated but by keeping them fresh and prominent you naturally assign more significance to the event. It becomes a catastrophe. You believe you know how other people still feel about it. Your feelings remain unchanged so it follows that it remains equally significant for other people involved in the memory. You are keeping the event in the now as though it has just been experienced.
As a contrast, think of something that made you a little nervous. For example, your first day at a new job. It didn’t feel great at the time. You had butterflies. But if you remember that situation now those feelings don’t reappear. Possibly you can see how far you’ve come from that day and those nerves seem totally irrelevant to who you are now when you go to work. Now think about other people in that situation. Can they remember what you were wearing? How you acted? What you said? They may have a patchy memory of it but it wouldn’t be easy to recall. They may remember your nerves but wouldn’t attach any significance to those feelings: it was normal. That is a normal way to process a memory. It’s given the correct amount of significance. You can think rationally about it and don’t relive the moment when you recall it.
A while ago I spoke to a very old friend and told her about something I’d done to her years ago that I had always felt very guilty about. I worried endlessly about it at. It had caused me great anxiety at the time. Over the years, I have revisited the event and still felt the same crushing anxiety and shame. In my mind, she still held onto the same emotions I believed she had at the time – anger, hurt. But she didn’t. She didn’t even remember it. It was something she had processed and moved on from. It was not significant to her. It was my anxiety that had kept the event in the now. My anxiety had exaggerated the significance of the memory.
Realising this has prompted me to keep a new mantra as I’ve processed more recent events that caused anxiety.
I don’t know how the other people felt. It is not significant to them. They are not feeling like this now, in fact they probably haven’t thought about it since. How I felt at the time was normal. I don’t need to feel that way now. I am allowed to move on.
It has also helped me stop the replaying of the event in its tracks. I know that the more I mull over anxiety, the more I feel it. I have been training myself to stop thinking about it. Then I tell myself this mantra. Then I purposely find something else to occupy me. Whether it’s folding origami cranes, reading a book, tidying or painting my nails, I have told myself that I don’t need to live in that moment. I can focus on something else. It doesn’t always work, but it certainly helps.
*These are my rudimentary views on memory following my experiences with anxiety and CBT. For a greater understanding of how memory works, I suggest further reading!