Stress is becoming an increasingly common part of our everyday lives. Sometimes it’s caused by disasters like the coronavirus pandemic, severe weather or earthquakes and how these disrupt our daily lives. In other cases it’s the everyday stress and strain of dealing with coworkers, supervisors, drivers on our commute and family members. Cabin fever can make it worse.
The negative feelings that result can put you “off your game” or even ruin your day. The effects of some bad experiences, like your being humiliated at work or your kids at school, can stay with you for days or longer. If only there was a way to cope with stress by getting rid of these unpleasant feelings so we can get on with our lives! Fortunately, neuroscience may have uncovered one.
The brain’s power to restore a person’s distressed emotional world to well-being is far greater than we once knew, and we’re learning more about that capacity all the time. – Psychotherapist Bruce Ecker in “The Brain’s Rules for Change”
Over the years, researchers studying the brain have learned much about the way it operates. They uncovered the fact that different types of memories are stored in different parts of the brain. Episodic memories – our recollection of events that occurred – reside in one brain structure. Memories of the emotions we felt in response are stored in a different structure.
Our brains then form a link – like an Internet hyperlink – between our recollection of the episode and our memory of the emotions it generated. Anything that triggers the memory causes us to experience the emotions – positive or negative – that went along with it.
Losing the link to negative feelings
Imagine sending a friend an email with a link to an article or video you think they’d enjoy. If someone intercepted the message and changed a few letters or numbers in the hyperlink, it would no longer work. Your friend could click it all day and nothing would happen.
Some 40 years ago, neuroscientists discovered that our brains work similarly. If you can disrupt the link between your memory of a negative event and the emotions it produced, it could become possible to remember what happened, but feel no emotions in response. This was an enormous breakthrough!
Unfortunately, discoveries from 1980s studies were put aside for years. Now they’ve spurred neuroscientists, armed with the latest technology, to discover that there is a way to not just cope with, but actually eliminate negative feelings and the dysfunctional behavior they can inspire. Researchers are exploring ways to use this to treat anxiety disorders and even heroin addiction.
This article will not discuss or recommend any form of therapy for serious emotional or psychological disorders. That must be left to experts in the fields of neurology and psychology.
Eliminating everyday stress and negative emotions
While researchers look for ways to use this knowledge to treat serious problems, we can make use of it to successfully deal with many everyday negative emotions that get in the way of our happiness, productivity and achievement.
This could include disappointment when things don’t go as hoped or planned, hurt feelings at receiving harsh criticism, sadness at falling short or seeing people or animals suffer. The procedure outlined under “Practical Application” hasn’t been tested for serious emotional trauma, like the death of someone close or becoming a crime victim. Don’t try this on your own for severe emotional distress, anxiety or depression. Seek professional help for those problems.
The neuroscience behind recalling emotional memories
Researchers like Dr. Daniela Schiller and her colleagues at New York’s Mt. Sinai Medical Center have learned that emotional memories are not recorded and stored like videos. Rather, our brains record the key facts and feelings and use them to reconstruct memories when prompted. This process is similar to opening a file stored on your computer’s hard drive.
Studies show that, once recalled, memories must be put back into long-terms storage. It’s like saving work on your hard drive. Your brain saves the memory you reconstructed in a process neuroscientists call “Reconsolidation.” This takes about 5 hours. During reconsolidation, the link between episodic and emotional memories can be altered. Just as editing a hyperlink can render it useless, interfering with the brain’s normal reconsolidation process can disrupt the link between our recollection of the episode and memory of the emotions it produced. Done correctly, we will remember exactly what we experienced. But because the link to the original emotions has been severed, remembering the incident won’t bother us anymore.
Neuroscientists produced in lab animals fearful memories of seeing a predator’s shadow or receiving a shock in a specific location. The frightened creatures avoided that place. Researchers immediately administered a drug that inhibits proteins used by the brain to reconsolidate memories. Afterwards, the animals calmly went right back to an area they had once fearfully avoided.
These chemicals are either toxic to humans or impractical to use, so Dr. Schiller’s team investigated whether a psychological procedure could accomplish the same thing. In two different clinical trials, it did.
Their research, along with other studies, showed that emotion could be erased from memories by using this procedure, according to psychotherapist Bruce Ecker:
- Fully reactivate the targeted memory to trigger the uncomfortable emotion.
- While that memory and the accompanying emotion is being experienced, simultaneously create an additional memory that sharply mismatches (contradicts and disconfirms) the expectations and predictions arising from the original memory.
Practical Application to eliminate stress and negative emotions
The technique Ecker described in Psychotherapy Networker magazine is virtually identical to a procedure I learned through sports peak performance consultant Art Rondeau, who has successfully helped NBA players improve their shooting percentages. It has worked for me on at least 300 occasions. Don’t use it for pleasant memories or it will remove their enjoyable emotions. Here’s how I learned to neutralize an unpleasant experience:
1. Close my eyes and imagine the incident that bothered me as if I were experiencing it all over again.
2. When that “video” ends, run it in reverse, like mentally watching a DVR rewind.
3. “Play” it again from the start, adding movie or TV music that has no connection to the emotion, like the William Tell Overture or the theme from Hawaii 5-0.
4. While it’s replaying, drastically change part of the memory. I imagine a person who caused me emotional pain with bright blue skin. To neutralize the effect of a negative email, I imagine flames erupting on my computer or smartphone screen.
Helping a Friend
My friend Drew* was clearly down in the dumps. He explained that the day before his boss had blamed him for someone else’s mistake, cruelly humiliating him in front of 50 coworkers. Not surprisingly, it had really bothered him that whole evening and into the next morning.
When Drew agreed to try this procedure to get rid of his painful feelings, I asked him to close his eyes and run his experience like a video in his mind. When he signaled me that the “movie” had begun, I began to sing the theme from the classic TV comedy The Addams Family. He recognized it and chuckled.
When, at my request, he began to mentally “rerun the video,” a bewildered expression appeared on his face. “What’s the matter?” I asked. “It’s gone!” he said. “It bothered me all last night and again this morning. And now it’s gone.”
Could it work for you?
Using this technique, which worked so well for Drew, I’ve been able to neutralize moderately painful experiences for years. Things that would have ruined my day often become harmless once I employ it. This allows me to come up with clear-headed solutions to the problems that caused me pain.
What some call the “Movie Music” procedure has worked to erase everyday negative emotions for Drew and thousands of others, including me. That’s no guarantee that it will work for you. But the next time someone’s words or actions cause you pain, you might be glad you gave it a try.
* Not his real name
- Unlocking the Emotional Brain, The Psychotherapy Networker
- The Brain’s Rules for Change, The Psychotherapy Networker
- Preventing the return of fear in humans using reconsolidation update mechanisms, Nature