Get Over It: Why Emotional Reactions Resurface

» Posted by on May 15, 2015 in Alpha Blog | 0 comments

If a person endures a severely stressful situation, he or she may become emotionally hyperactive to future events that are reminiscent of the original, triggering situation.

For example, a client may have repressed the memory of being raped repeatedly by her uncle, yet becomes panicky and tearful whenever her husband approaches her for sex. Or a man may verbally attack his wife whenever he perceives that she is being “distant” from him, having altogether forgotten that as a small child his depressed mother regularly retreated to her locked bedroom, leaving him utterly alone for hours at the time. In your helpless infancy, his need to stave off abandonment was a matter of survival. But now, when your partner says or does something that is interpreted as “This person doesn’t love me! This person is leaving me!” the person scrambles frantically to protect himself.

Your memory will often see someone at a distance and offer a “best guess” as to their identity. As the person moves closer, the “best guess” offered by the brain may be true or false. Emotional memory works the same way, looking at a current situation or experience, your brain searches for memories and looks for patterns to offer a “best guess” by comparing today with a previous emotional situation. This is the reality of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and emotional trauma. This is why you may immediately recall a painfully traumatic memory when you hear a car backfire or feel as if you are being assaulted when someone taps on your shoulder from behind.

This raises the important point that the brain doesn’t know if an experience is real or imagined. How can this be you may ask? Well, the brain creates memories based on information it is given, usually through your senses and thoughts. For example, you may watch a sad movie and cry as if someone you love is really suffering or become silent when a glass breaks at a restaurant as if a car crashed through the door. The circumstance sets off false alarms, which unleashes the same level of feeling as if the real event were happening. If your emotions are in control your body, your physical reactions occur as if you really were fighting a great danger, even is no visible danger exists. That causes your decision making to be clouded, resulting in less than rational choices (punching, yelling, withdrawing).

This exaggeration is in part due to the finding that stress enhances the functioning of the brain. So as levels of stress hormones shoot up, the brain kicks into overdrive, thereby facilitating extremely powerful emotional reactions. The point is that your emotional reactions may be fast and strong, but they are not necessarily accurate or appropriate to the situation at hand. The memorized behavior patterns of the mind, emotions, and physical body follow habits. All it takes is for some feature of the present situation to resemble a situation from the past to trigger you emotional memory into action. The instant that feature is recognized by the emotional mind, the feelings that went with the past event are triggered.

When an emotional memory is triggered, you will say the same things, feel the same intensity of emotion, and behave the same way that you did at the time the memory was created. That is to say, you will respond to today as if it was a different time or place in your life. The emotional experiences you have endured resurface and are replayed when you perceive an event in the present as emotionally similar to something for your past. As a result you may become defensive and lash out with anger or withdrawn and avoid confrontation out of sadness or fear. Many of these reactions, however, are not appropriate for the current situation. These reactions are based on past relationships and emotional experiences, causing you to erupt or melt down in the form of crying, yelling, panic or violence.

These memories and exaggerated emotional reactions will keep resurfacing until you examine your past. When a depressed person recalls emotional memories associated with failure, the brain instantly replays powerful memories linked to negativity. Depressed individuals suffer from a truck-load of horrible memories that prompt them to recall memories about childhood trauma, abusive relationships or social embarrassment, or any time they feel that have failed. I have seen cases where clients have discussed a horrible experience from 15 to 20 years ago stating, “I thought I got over it, I guess I didn’t!” Truthfully, they may have gotten over the initial experience, but the recalled memory is still powerful as time it was formed. As a result of these memories resurfacing, they begin to relive the powerful emotions that were felt at that time of their past experience. Even 20 years later, if you bring out a horrible memory, you will feel horrible.

By Aaron Karmin
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 12 May 2015
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