Many people are haunted by upsetting memories and don’t realize it. When someone flies into a rage over the slightest thing or is terrified of rejection, they likely don’t recognize that what’s causing their over-reaction is memory, not necessarily the current situation. This is what happens when we’re not conscious of memory triggers. At it’s extreme, this is what causes Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
To understand why this happen, we need to understand the connection between events past and present and how memories form: “Groups of neurons in the neocortex encode [these] memories of objects and past events. Remembering a thing or an episode reactivates the same neurons that initially encoded it.”
These neocortical neurons automatically encode whatever happens to us, registering the facts of events as well as our emotional reactions, for better or worse. Dad whacking you on the head when you were 11 because you were texting during dinner may register as fear or anger or both in you. As an adult, when your friend gives you what’s meant to be a friendly poke in the ribs, you may become anxious or furious. This is how the process works. Your automatic reaction was from the past event. But, not understanding this, you might smack your friend or stomp out of the room.
Two ways of responding to events, including memories that provoke emotions, are via the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous systems which have “opposite but complementary roles. Your sympathetic nervous system carries signals that put your body’s systems on alert, and your parasympathetic carries signals that return those systems to their standard activity levels.”
Your sympathetic nervous system takes the lead when your safety and survival are at risk, but that system’s actions can strain body systems when it’s active for too long. Because these two systems offset each other, they help maintain balance in your body. Your parasympathetic nervous system also manages the activity in organs throughout your body when you feel calm and safe. These functions don’t involve risk or danger but are still key in keeping you alive and healthy.”
That said, you can see how your sympathetic (fight or flight) reaction might kick in when a distressing memory kicks up, when you would benefit from instead using your parasympathetic nervous system to keep calm. Learn more about memory encoding, PTSD and how to better manage memories at https://www.lifeafterptsd.org/.