Working with old memories
I saw a mother and her little girl sitting in an airport lounge. The little girl was unwell; she was constantly coughing. Her mother wasn’t sure how to help her child, other than by hugging her, giving her sips of water, and patting her back so she could fall asleep. Sleep finally arrived; the coughing went down but didn’t completely disappear.
Coughing helps keep the passageways into the lungs clear of any debris. As our species prioritized speaking (phonation) above smelling (olfaction), our voice box moved closer to the food pipe. This increased the risk of food entering the lung passages, leading to the evolution of the cough. A cough that dislodges foreign bodies can save a life.
However, there is a second form of cough, a dry, hacking, annoying cough in response to chemical or inflammatory irritation of the airways, like the little girl was experiencing. We all have tried to suppress it at some point. This cough is often unhelpful and can be very frustrating and fatiguing. Excessive chronic cough can even hurt, by producing rib fractures, air leakage in the lungs, hernias, increased eye pressure, and even loss of consciousness.
In my medical career, I have seen thousands of patients with a cough. The majority of us experience this second type of cough—a true nuisance. Cough is one of nature’s protective reflexes that hurts too many to protect a few. Our negative thoughts and ruminations about previous hurts are similar.
While occasionally harboring the hurts and thinking about them might help, more commonly, such thoughts injure us and multiply our misery. This is because when we remember a hurt, we reexperience it. And when we reexperience it, we strengthen it further.
When revisiting a hurtful thought, ask yourself, is this thought serving a purpose? If it’s helpful and protective, find meaning in that thought, keep it with you, and help it direct your self-protective actions.
If it’s unhelpful, find ways to avoid visiting it, by taking your attention elsewhere or reinterpreting the thought with one of the higher principles (gratitude, compassion, acceptance, meaning, forgiveness), so it loses its sharp sting.
May your thoughts be happy, healthy, healed, and hope-filled; may you help others think such thoughts.
@AmitSoodMD (on Twitter)
Question: How to work with old hurtful memories?
Answer: Avoid revisiting unhelpful, hurtful memories. When a hurtful memory comes to your mind, try to find gratitude for what went right within the experience, or when you can, shift your focus to a good memory.
Intention: This week when my mind revisits a hurtful memory, I will direct its attention elsewhere or try to positively reinterpret the experience.