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Do You Have Anxious Memories? Reset Them with These Tools

February 28, 2019 Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Memories can be anxious when anxiety changes your thoughts about the past. Learn why, plus tools to reduce anxious memories at HealthyPlace.

Anxiety messes with memory. Have you ever worried about something that happened in the past? Have you fretted about something you did or didn't do that "probably" caused a current problem? Have you laid in bed, tossing in turning, running situations, conversations, and mistakes through your mind nonstop? These are some examples of anxious memories and how they can take over. You can regain control by resetting these anxious memories. 

Memory Is Biased

Our memories aren't completely trustworthy. We are wired with a negativity bias that skews our attention, focus, and thoughts. The human brain looks for problems so it can react and keep us safe from danger. Unfortunately, we find that which we seek. When we watch for negative situations, we find them. To do that, we overlook the positive. The negativity bias is at work in our current lives well as in our memories. 

Simply put, we can't trust our own memories. Then when anxiety gets involved, our ideas about our past can become jumbled, negative, and inaccurate. Current worries, fears, and stresses impose themselves on memory.

Pretend, for example, that you're experiencing problems at work. As you worry about work, anxiety takes your thoughts over the top and back to the past. You might remember other times you've had conflicts. What if these conflicts were because you are difficult and unpleasant? You remember a multitude of examples proving this. Then, the memories expand. You were a difficult, terrible parent and created conflicts that made things hard for your kids at home. What if they, now adults, harbor resentment? What if that grows and soon they won't want to see you? You are gripped by anxiety and can think of very little other than regrets and worries about the past that are doing harm in the present and future. 

Anxiety easily usurps our imagination and re-creates history. You don't have to star in anxiety's puppet show of the past. Reset anxious memories and put an end to fretting day and night over the past.

Reset Your Anxious Memories

We believe our memories, including our thoughts and feelings about them. Because anxiety and the negativity bias influence our memory, distancing ourselves from anxious memories can reduce worries and regrets. Try these memory-resetting tools:

  • Identify and catch your negative thoughts. Are you catastrophizing, magnifying problems so they're bigger than they originally were? Are you reinforcing your memory worries by calling yourself harsh names? Perhaps you notice that you're letting your anxious emotions charge over the top of rational thoughts about the past. Observe your negative thought patterns, and when you notice negative thinking, let them serve to remind you that anxious memories aren't accurate. 
  • Live fully in the present. When you catch yourself beating yourself up over something in the past, shift your focus to right now. Use mindfulness to center yourself in the present and then keep your attention on the moment as you go about your day or night. 
  • Define goals, values, and action steps for your present and future. It's difficult to stay rooted in anxiety over the past when you're actively focused on creating the life you want. If something in your memories is deeply bothering you, incorporate it into your values and plans for what you want to do about it now. 

Recognize that anxious memories are flawed and reset them so that life today becomes a positive memory down the road. 

I invite you to tune into the below video about anxious memories. 

APA Reference
NCC, T. (2019, February 28). Do You Have Anxious Memories? Reset Them with These Tools, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, August 23 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2019/2/do-you-have-anxious-memories-reset-them-with-these-tools



Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps, and five critically-acclaimed, award-winning novels about mental health challenges. She speaks nationally about mental health, and she has a curriculum for middle and high schools. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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