David J. Pollay, MAPP '06, is a co-founder of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA). David has an Economics degree from Yale University and has held leadership positions at Yahoo!, MasterCard, Global Payments and AIESEC. He is an Executive Coach who specializes in business relationships. He is also an author and keynote speaker known for his best-selling books, The Law of the Garbage Truck (how to navigate negativity) and The 3 Promises (how to create personal fulfillment every day). David's articles are here. For permission to reprint David's articles, please contact him.
Our brain automatically tries to keep us safe. We are wired not to hurt or kill ourselves. The challenge is that the brain has an alarm system that can be hypersensitive. We often receive physical and emotional alerts to warn us of problems that pose no real threat. As a result, we are left to respond to psychological and physical false alarms.
Memories often trigger fear
In a paper published called Memories of Fear, How the Brain Stores and Retrieves Physiologic States, Feelings, Behaviors and Thoughts from Traumatic Events, psychiatrist and former Chief of Psychiatry at Texas Children’s Hospital, Bruce Perry, wrote: “The remarkable capacity of the brain to take a specific event and generalize, particularly with regard to threatening stimuli, makes humans vulnerable to the development of ‘false’ associations and false generalizations from a specific traumatic event to other non-threatening situations.”
Essentially, events in our lives that have long since passed can continue to exact their toll by triggering fear in us.
Waking up happy
Most days I wake up feeling happy. Why? The answer is simple: I get to awake each morning to the warm embrace and beautiful voice of my wife, Dawn. Dawn wakes me so that I can wake up my little girls and make their breakfast before they go to school. I cherish my morning wake-up routine. While some days I get up a little tired, I still feel happy: I am focused on what I care about.
Waking up with random memories
Contrast these typical mornings when I am home with the days when I’m traveling on business. It is not uncommon for me to wake up to memories of twenty years ago, a random thought, or a feeling I cannot explain. And some of these thoughts are negative. I wake up thinking about the money I lost years ago on a bad financial decision, or when I failed a test in school, or when I made a mistake in an important relationship. And then my unchaperoned brain automatically starts searching for evidence of whether I’m still making bad financial decisions, or I’m still not studying enough, etc. And, if I’m not careful, my unattended brain will find some shred of evidence to build its negative case. And the result is that the initial bad memory or random thought captures my attention and then sets the tone for my day.
What can we do?
The first key is to recognize that our brains will continue to send us unconscious warning signals every day of our lives. The second key is to understand that our initial emotional reaction to these warnings may also be subconsciously activated by the memories our brain associates with the alarm. Positive Psychology researcher Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Happiness Hypothesis, references the research findings of social psychology researcher Dan Wegner: “Automatic processes generate thousands of thoughts and images every day, often through random association. The ones that get stuck are the ones that particularly shock us, the ones we try to suppress or deny.”
The third and final key is to realize that there is no need to engage all these negative memories: We do not have to reflect and analyze them each time they surface.
A time to “smile, wave, wish them well, and move on”
Thankfully, I discovered the power of applying The Law of the Garbage Truck™ to bad memories (see my October 2007 column here). I do not suppress or deny my memories and random thoughts: “I just smile, wave, wish them well, and I move on.”
There comes a time in our lives when we must let our bad memories pass us by. We must not let our past reduce our joy, our confidence, and belief in what is good and possible in our lives. We can live our best possible lives now.
© 2008 David J. Pollay
Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. Basic Books.
Perry, B. (1999). Memories of fear: How the brain stores and retrieves physiologic states, feelings, behaviors and thoughts from traumatic events. Originally appeared in J. Goodwin & R. Attias, Splintered reflections: Images of the body in trauma. Basic Books.
Ped-Bus Accident courtesy of Oran Viriyincy