Try This Simple Exercise to Overcome Toxic and Painful Memories

Try This Simple Exercise to Overcome Toxic and Painful Memories

One of the most powerful “feel better fast” techniques Dr. Daniel Amen—a neuropsychiatrist, brain imaging expert, and founder of Amen Clinics—uses is called “Breaking the Bonds of the Past.” It stems from the belief that negative feelings and behaviors—such as anxiety and panic attacks, addictions, and angry outbursts—are often based on past memories that are either toxic or misinterpreted.

This technique requires only 5 simple steps, but it can have a powerful and lasting effect. Here’s what you do. Whenever you have a painful or disruptive memory or feeling, write out the answers to the following questions:

  1. When was the last time you struggled, had the painful or disruptive memory or feeling, or felt suffering? Write down the details.
  2. What were you feeling at the time? Describe the predominant feeling.
  3. When was the first time you had that feeling? In your mind, imagine yourself on a train going backward through time. Go back to the time when you first had the feeling. Write down the incident or incidents in detail.
  4. Can you go back even further to a time when you had that original feeling? Write down the details of the original incident.
  5. If you have a clear idea of the origins of the feelings, can you disconnect them by reprocessing them through an adult or parent mindset, or reframe them in light of new information? Consciously disconnect the emotional bridge to the past with the idea that what happened in the past belongs in the past, and what happens now is what matters. 

Here’s an example of how Dr. Amen worked through these questions during a psychotherapy session with a young patient.

How Nate Broke the Bonds of the Past to Overcome Panic Attacks

Nate, 15, desperately wanted help for panic attacks but didn’t want to take anti-anxiety medication. He had several episodes a day when he felt like he was choking or drowning. His breathing became shallow, fast, and labored. His heart raced, he broke out in a sweat, and he felt as though he was dying. Nate hated these episodes. The fear of having them was so overwhelming that he stopped going to school. On Nate’s second visit, Dr. Amen went through the Breaking the Bonds of the Past steps with him.

Tell me about the last time you had a panic attack?

Nate said it was the day before. He was eating dinner when all of a sudden, he felt like he was starting to choke. He couldn’t get air, his heart started to race, he was sweating, and felt as though he was going to die.   

Tell me what you were feeling at the time. Describe the predominant feeling.

Nate said he felt as though he was going to die. 

In your mind, imagine yourself on a train going backward through time. Go back to a time when you first had that feeling, the feeling that you were going to die.

Nate sat there for a minute and then started to choke. I thought he was having a panic attack in front of me. I asked him to breathe slowly and tell me what was going on. He slowed his breathing, wiped his brow, and told me about a time when he was 6 years old. He was sitting at a lunch table at school and accidentally swallowed a plastic wrapper from a candy bar. He started to choke on the wrapper. Initially, no one saw him. He said he started to turn blue. He couldn’t breathe, and no one noticed. He thought he was going to die. After what seemed an eternity a teacher saw him and did the Heimlich maneuver on him, dislodging the wrapper. Nate said he had forgotten about the event until now.

After Nate had settled down and composed himself, I asked him to go back even further in his mind to see if there was an earlier time when he had the feeling he was going to die.

He closed his eyes and said he remembered a time when he was very young. He was coming out of a very dark place into a place filled with bright lights, lights that felt hot. People were moving around. He felt fear. He couldn’t breathe, and something awful covered his face. He felt as though he was going to die.

To my amazement, Nate had just described a birth experience. When he opened his eyes, I asked him if he knew anything about his birth. He said no, no one had ever talked to him about it. I asked his mother to come into the room. I asked her about his birth experience. She told me that he was a meconium baby, where the infant’s feces get into the amniotic fluid which is very dangerous for the newborn. He was born blue and had to be resuscitated by the doctor. His mother said she had never talked about it with Nate. She didn’t want to worry him.

Break the bonds of the past through an adult or parent mindset or reframe them in light of new information.

With Nate’s mother in the room, I took him back to both of those times. First, with the birth experience, I had the grown teenage Nate go back and explain to the baby what had happened. The baby was in trouble for a short time, but the doctors helped clean him up so he could breathe normally. I then took him through the candy wrapper incident and had the teenage Nate tell 6-year-old Nate that he is grateful to the teacher who helped him and that he is alive, well, and healthy (and he needed to stop eating candy wrappers). 

After that session, Nate’s panic attacks disappeared. Dr. Amen saw Nate a few more times, but essentially disconnecting his present symptoms from the past sensitizing event resolved them.

At Amen Clinics, we take a unique brain-body approach to diagnosis and treatment that includes brain SPECT imaging, as well as laboratory testing to check physical health, and other important factors that could be contributing to symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks. By getting to the root cause of your symptoms, we can create a more effective, personalized treatment plan for you.

If you want to join the tens of thousands of people who have already enhanced their brain health, overcome their symptoms, and improved their quality of life at Amen Clinics, speak to a specialist today at 888-288-9834. If all our specialists are busy helping others, you can also schedule a time to talk.


  1. Just wanted to say thank you for the powerful and insightful story of Nate.

    Comment by JoAnn Hively — May 18, 2020 @ 3:25 AM

  2. as I read through this process I wonder if Dr. Amen is aware of EFT? So simple and helpful.

    Comment by troutman — May 18, 2020 @ 7:03 AM

  3. Congratulations…I’m honestly thankful this young man is now ‘happy’. Perhaps, his parents should focus on making him understand the focus of life is not to be happy…it is to be a productive member of society…We continually have dumbed down education, transformed a society of individuals with ‘grit’, who achieved greatness regardless of the situation…i.e., Civil War, WWI, WW II, even the mess we called Viet Nam…(I respect Veterans as one) – through it all we produced Men…who produced solutions through individual, creative solutions…
    An interesting article in “Princeton Environmental Institute”,, stated, “Gardening can boost mood…as much as exercise.” Some of these ‘confused children, with endless hours of ‘game playing’ & hours to waste fearing their negative feelings…panic attacks, anxiety & addictions…Would do well…even If they just started a garden…Physical work has a way of erasing time and memories making one think of only their problems…especially if you need the harvest to eat…Lets’ stop sending children to psychologists, psychiatrists,, PhD’s selling books, and have mothers and fathers take responsibility for families…Birth is one stage of life, as is death…It’s what is produced between that produces happiness…
    Also, , inculcating a spiritual foundation would also go a long way to producing children realize there is guidance when all else fails…and it don’t come in a pill, medical examination…or expert diatribe…

    Thank you for another insightful victim story…

    Comment by Dr. Henry Sinopoli — May 18, 2020 @ 7:13 AM

  4. Dr. Henry Sinopoli, It’s funny to me that you’re using war veterans as an example of why this brain science isn’t necessary, since traumatized war veterans were the inspiration for the study of this subject in the first place. See The Body Keeps the Score.

    Thank you Amen Clinics for all the hard work you do helping war veterans and young people alike.

    Comment by Marika — May 18, 2020 @ 9:57 AM

  5. The principles of hard work, productivity, and acceptance of difficulties are generally good, important principles. But the story of Nate and his trauma from nearly dying is not the place to get on your soapbox. It is wasted, at best, and irritating with its snide, hateful tone.

    If you truly want to lead someone toward a spiritual foundation, you can only do so with love and caring. You can’t drive them to it with a whip.

    Comment by Millie — May 19, 2020 @ 5:06 AM

  6. Dr. Henry Sinopoli
    How wonderful that you’ve solved the world’s problems! Maybe now would be a good time to begin working on your own! I know of a groundbreaking doctor who could help…

    Dr. Amen thank you for helping Nate and countless others learn how to process their real life traumatic experiences so that they are not bound to them indefinitely as victims. Thank you for sharing his story.

    Comment by Dawn — May 20, 2020 @ 6:21 AM

  7. Sir, it is not helpful to degrade another profession while you try to speak to a method of treating depression. To me you sound angry and somewhat aggressive. This is not the place to discuss your feelings about education nor is it the subject at hand. Psychologists and other mental health professionals are like other doctors. They can be very helpful and have many different skill sets to use.

    Finding the source memory can be very helpful. Another method is tapping such as TAT or matrix. As mentioned previously EFT can help.
    I too believe that physical activity can help as well as counseling with skilled professionals.

    Comment by SJ Sands — May 20, 2020 @ 10:02 AM

  8. Thank you Dr Amen for the work you have done and continue to do. I also want to thank you for the recounting of Nates story. Hopefully I can use this technique on my self and others I care for.
    I look forward to your future work.

    Comment by Pat Shaughnessy — May 21, 2020 @ 9:57 PM

  9. Your hateful comment proves you need to use the resources the Amen Clinics offer. Please take advantage of them for yourself and for the people who tolerate you.

    Comment by Susan Woods — June 6, 2020 @ 2:24 AM

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment

Contact Us