How to Forget a Bad Memory

Tips to Forget a Bad Memory When You Are Socially Anxious

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Memories that are negative tend to stay with us. This can be particularly true if you live with social anxiety disorder (SAD), but even if you don't, there's a good chance you've dealt with lingering bad memories at some point in your life. You may find yourself cringing over something that happened weeks, months, or even years ago, as though you were still in the situation and can feel the shame.

Indeed, a 2016 study in the Journal of Behavioral Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry showed that people with SAD tended to view negative social memories as central to their identity.

New research is beginning to shed light on the process through which negative memories may contribute to your fear and anxiety. Studies indicate that certain hormones, areas of the brain, and genes may be responsible.

Negative Social Memories

You may have a hard time trying to forget a bad memory, whether or not you have SAD. It may feel as though you've built up a "memory bank" filled with all of the situations you remember as being shameful and embarrassing. While the specific memories that stick with you will vary from person to person, some examples include the following. These might be subjective, such that only you would see the negative aspect of the situation, or they could be overtly traumatizing, such as being the object of ridicule:

  • Making a mistake in a social situation, such as calling someone by the wrong name
  • Freezing during a performance situation
  • Being rejected by someone, particularly in a romantic relationship
  • Believing that others were aware of your anxious symptoms, such as shaking hands or blushing
  • Being bullied or made fun of by your peers

    After these types of events, when you recall them, you might say things to yourself such as:

    • "Why did I say/do that?"
    • "I'm so embarrassing"
    • "Why can't I interact easily with others?"

    In essence, you keep reliving those embarrassing memories and it may feel as though you can't shut off your brain.

    Oxytocin and Bad Memories

    While the hormone oxytocin has generally been heralded as having a positive influence in social situations, recent research has pointed to its potential to embed negative social memories in those with social anxiety disorder. In this way, oxytocin may have the effect of causing emotional pain and could be the reason that stressful social situations stay with us long after the original event—and may even trigger future anxiety and fear.

    In a study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience in 2013, mice with varying levels of oxytocin receptors (no receptors, increased receptors, normal level of receptors) in the brain were studied to examine the effects of fear and anxiety.

    In the first experiment, the mice were placed in a situation with aggressive mice in which they experienced social defeat, creating a stressful social situation. The mice who were missing the oxytocin receptors would not have had any oxytocin enter their brains.

    Six hours later, the researchers put the mice back with the aggressive mice. What they found was that the mice with no receptors showed no signs of fear. The mice with extra receptors show increased levels of fear. Finally, the mice with normal amounts of receptors showed a typical level of fear.

    In a second experiment, the researchers were able to show that oxytocin in a stressful social situation could even transfer fear into a situation that followed it—in the case of the mice this was an electric shock. Again, the mice without receptors showed no signs or remembering to be afraid of the electric shock.

    Oxytocin and Social Fears

    What does this research tell us about our own fear, anxiety, and their relation to bad memories?

    It appears that oxytocin strengthens social memories in the brain (specifically, in the lateral septum), or has the effect of intensification or amplification. This is important, since chronic social stress is known to cause anxiety and depression. This effect seems to also last a long time—at least six hours.

    This type of research also suggests that just as social anxiety appears to have a genetic component, it follows that your brain's ability to access oxytocin might relate to how well you encode bad memories in social situations, such that they make you afraid in the future.

    What to Do After a Bad Social Experience

    If past negative social events play a central role in social anxiety disorder, it makes sense that the elimination of memories of these events would help to lessen your anxiety:

    • If you tend to have flashbacks or "cringe attacks" about shameful situations from the past, it may be helpful to keep a journal in which you record happy or positive events as well. Anytime you remember a negative memory, try to follow it up with a positive one.
    • In response to flashbacks, you could also have a few phrases that you repeat to yourself, such as "that event does not define me."
    • You could also try to practice mindfulness when memories come back to you. Instead of allowing yourself to become engrossed in the memory, try bringing your attention to something in the present moment such as a sight or smell.
    • If you still struggle, try employing a cognitive-behavioral approach, and ask yourself, "Does anybody other than me really remember that situation or think about it?"
    • Finally, if you find yourself falling victim to the need to be perfect, and your memories center around times you have made mistakes, try making mistakes and doing things wrong on purpose. In time, if you are out there seeking to embarrass yourself, memories of those situations will have a different flavor. Tell yourself that you deserve social acceptance now, in the moment, rather than at some future time when you have become the "perfect" person.
    • Above all else, don't use negative strategies to forget bad memories, such as abusing drugs or alcohol.

    Gene Variations and Bad Memories

    Wouldn't it be wonderful to completely erase all of your negative memories? While that might sound like science fiction, modern medicine may be closer to making it happen than you realize.

    Research has shown that a brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) gene variation is related to fear generation. BDNF gene therapy could be used in the future, by altering genes that contribute to fear and anxiety.

    In the same way, the Tac2 gene pathway has been shown to reduce storage of traumatic memories. As a result, medication that blocks activity of this pathway could prevent the storage of traumatic memories in the first place. While this would be most useful for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), this type of research may also eventually inform negative memories in social anxiety disorder.

    Don't worry though—those bad memories are not erased for good. They are still stored somewhere, but are no longer accessible.

    A Word From Verywell

    Are you haunted by memories of mistakes you've made in the past? While thinking back on past mistakes is normal, dwelling on them to the point that they cause intense fear and anxiety in the present is not. If you live with social anxiety disorder or believe that you may have symptoms of this problem, it is important to consult with your doctor. In particular, meeting with a therapist who specializes in SAD may be helpful to generate strategies to better cope with these negative memories.

    Sources:

    Kummer A, Harsanyi E. Flashbacks in social anxiety disorder: Psychopathology of a caseIndian J Psychiatry. 2008;50(3):200-201. doi:10.4103/0019-5545.43637.

    O’Toole MS, Watson LA, Rosenberg NK, Berntsen D. Negative autobiographical memories in social anxiety disorder: A comparison with panic disorder and healthy controlsJ Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry. 2016;50:223-230. doi:10.1016/j.jbtep.2015.09.008.

    Scientific American. Can Fear Be Erased?

    Yomayra F Guzmán, Natalie C Tronson, Vladimir Jovasevic, Keisuke Sato, Anita L Guedea, Hiroaki Mizukami, Katsuhiko Nishimori, Jelena Radulovic. Fear-enhancing effects of septal oxytocin receptors. Nature Neuroscience, 2013; DOI: 10.1038/nn.3465

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