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Sporadic photos and notes from a Psyche-midwife, cheerleader, anthropologist--aka clinical social worker in therapy practice. Photos are usually mine except for those of historical events/famous people. Music relevant to the daily topic is often included in a web video embedded below the blog. Click on highlighted links in the copy to get to source or supplemental material. For contact information, see my website @ janasvoboda.com or click on the button to the right below. Join in the conversation.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Science of Forgetting

We are what we remember.  When we remember the awful, we are awfully burdened.  When we remember the transcendent, we are lifted.

What do we do when the awful transcends into the everyday?

Two recent articles offer clues.  Researchers in cognitive behavioral therapy, neuroscience, and pharmacology are interested in how we might learn to be less bent under the weight of horrific, or even just negative, reminiscence.  In this article from neuroscience news, scientists identify two completely different neural pathways used in pruning out the thornier aspects of our pasts:   http://neurosciencenews.com/discovery-of-two-opposite-ways-humans-voluntarily-forget-unwanted-memories-prefrontal-cortex/.
One method shuts down the path to the memory, and the other substitutes alternate, pleasant memories for the troublesome recollections.  Think of the latter as the use of Febreze on a smoky outfit.  The first method requires suppression, perhaps more arduous found to be but equally effective.

And then there is chemical magic: 
Scientists have been working on finding a medication that will block recurring, unproductive recollections without wiping out the rest of the data base.  The implications for sufferers of PTSD are heartening.  (PTSD short story:  when the brain has diligently cataloged every aspect of a real or perceived life-threatening event and vomits these back into activating panic at the most inopportune times.  For more about Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, check out this post: /stuck-in-bad-story-ptsd.html )

Ideally, we want to learn to sit compassionately with all our feelings:  the positive, the frightening, the heartbreaking.  We want to give them the space to feel heard and validated.  We want to eventually find some gratitude, or at least understanding of how to integrate our feelings and what has happened in our lives into a more peaceful place. But we're only human.  We can only bear so much.  And there is sometimes so much that wants to be borne.
allow in comfort.  photo s banese 2012

During the worst of times, it's best just to breath, to sleep, to be in nature, to be, when we can bear it, with others who know the story and love us in all our manifestations. Sometimes being with those who really, truly get it-- have been there too-- provides access to new tools to reach that elusive goal of gratitude and integration.  Mind you, the gratitude is not about the loss, or even the pain (but if you can get there, more power to you).  It's about what you leaned through the relationship or situation that has now ended, and what you will take into the future and into your heart.

Grief comes in wide and periodic waves of unimaginable intensity.  We don't think we can bear them, we don't want to bear them-- and yet, despite our protests, we come out the other side for times.  On bad days we may want to leave the  house.  On bad days we can hardly breathe.  And then there are those brief respites where we are in gratitude, denial, what have you-- and are pulled up by our short hairs as friends say, "It's weird you seem so happy".  All of these peaks and valleys and boulder-strewn trails are real.  All they mean is:  this is the way of grief for you now.

s. banese 2012
Yet there are some assists.  Using Cognitive Behavioral techniques, one can conscientiously (and mostly metaphorically) lock grief away for more intentional inspection during a prescribed time.  You can choose to journal, meditate or pray at a particular time of day to focus on feeling your feelings.  When they arise at less convenient times, treat them with firm loving compassion a la Dr. Spock:  acknowledge them, and remind them you've not forgotten and will be getting together with them soon.  If you choose not to wait when negative recollections intrude, at least take action: draw, write a letter to your pain or loved one or your fear from the perspective of a wiser future self.  Try not to engage in less healthy distractions such as overindulging in TV, alcohol, drugs, junk food.    Respect your reasonable desire to be away from pain, but refrain from the negative behavior.

If head-on looking at the pain isn't working, try the old "happy spot" trick:  for every unbearable sad memory that arises, substitute a happy one.  Start with real ones, but fantasies work too as long as you keep perspective. 

If nothing's working, go for a cleaner,unrelated distraction. Do a jigsaw, dance wildly, engage in some critical analysis.   Alphabetize or color code your spice cabinet.  The point here is to shift energy from the emotional brain into the critical thinking/logical parts of your brain. 

Medication is a option.  I'd opted for trying the others first, for obvious reasons:  costs, side effects, hassle.
But I wouldn't hesitate to recommend a consult if the others aren't working, or if you've lost sight of why you should bother after all.  In that case, get thee to a physician and see what might be helpful to get you back to functioning level. 

Here's a couple other resources to consider.  Benton County (or your local) Hospice program offers educational classes and support group for bereavement.  The first is more curriculum based and good if you who are still in the "it's too private to talk about" stage.  You'll get good information in a safe environment.  The support group is less formal and filled with people in similar situations.  You may find a wealth of knowledge about what to avoid, expect, and what can help.

There is no life well-lived that won't face suffering. You are in tribal company here.  Let your tribe support you the best they are able.  Ask for what you need.  Be kind to your body, which will release its suffering in its own fashion.  

The big message:  Take Care.  You don't have to do this alone.

A good listen on memory can be found at radiolab.org by clicking here.
Song of the Day: God Bless the Potholes Down On Memory Lane, by Randy Newman

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