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:
- When was the last time you struggled, had the painful or disruptive memory or feeling, or felt suffering? Write down the details.
- What were you feeling at the time? Describe the predominant feeling.
- 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.
- Can you go back even further to a time when you had that original feeling? Write down the details of the original incident.
- 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.