How often do you reach back into your storehouse of memories to retrieve a memory of an event long past? This can be a tricky undertaking because your memories are not like photos in a scrapbook, unchanging replications of a past event. They are more like sand dunes on a beach, changing shape according to wind and tide fluctuations. For instance, in one experiment, just prior to taking a test, students were asked how anxious they were. About a week after taking the test, they were told they either did well, or did poorly, and then asked again how anxious they felt before taking the test the previous week. Those who were told they did well, remembered themselves as less anxious before the test than they actually were; conversely, students who were told they did poorly, remembered themselves as more anxious before the test than they actually were. In others words, when you reflect back on an event, your memory can be influenced by your current circumstances. If you’re presently depressed and are asked what sort of childhood you had, what are the odds you will remember it as Brady-Bunch delightful? You are more likely to remember your childhood as stressful and frustrating, and you can justify your depression by casting blame on your parents. In this case, the potentially-distorted memory retrieval can greatly complicate efforts to deal with your current depression.
Memories can also be an impediment to effective coping by trapping you in your past. You can become tormented by memories of long-ago events that may produce anger, shame, anxiety, or similar emotions that interfere with stable functioning in the present. You may need to learn to accept the past as something over which you have no control, and focus your coping efforts on the present. Grace, for instance, was physically molested by a coach when she was 12. “I never forgot that experience,” she says, “and it haunted me. The only way I could deal with it was to use it to gain sympathy from others. You know, ‘Treat me gently because I suffered abuse as a child. I deserve your sympathy and tenderness.’ That attitude of entitlement drove people away from me; my social and romantic life was a mess. Counseling helped me realize that I did not deserve to have the corners of my world padded just because I had a traumatic experience. It happened, and it raised a whole bunch of emotions that I let dominate me. It took me awhile, and I still process it, but the fact is I don’t deserve squat, and I have to be responsible for living my life now, not yesterday.”
Another way memories can challenge your coping efforts is when you come to believe things that didn’t happen the way you remember. Elke Geraerts of Maastricht University, The Netherlands, and colleagues were interested in determining if presumed victims of sexual abuse when a child, could actually forget the event and then later recover it years later during therapy. The researchers conducted extensive interviews and testing with women in their 40s who claimed they had recovered forgotten memories of earlier sexual abuse, and recovered the memories during formal therapy. Geraerts also interviewed family members and friends, and found little objective confirmation of the recovered memories. That is, extensive interviewing and investigation with relatives and friends just did not verify the events these women said they suddenly began to remember during therapy sessions. Geraerts concluded that during therapy, the clients were slowly buying into suggestions from the therapist – “Maybe the source of your problems is that you were abused as a child. Have you ever considered that?” – and they incorporated imaginary experiences into their memories, experiences that never took place. Impossible? Actually, memory researchers have found that false memories from childhood can be “implanted” in highly suggestible people, memories like getting lost in a store for a few minutes when 3, or being taken to the hospital for a stomach ache when 4. Some people are quite capable of unconsciously manufacturing memories that never happened.
There are some valuable coping lessons here. When trying to cope with stress, you would be wise not to rely on analyzing your past, especially if your memories of that past are all you have to go on, and you cannot confirm the reliability of your memories with reports of others. Also, remember that your memories can be greatly influenced by suggestions from others, and by your current circumstances and emotional state. Given these caveats, it’s safe to say that your coping efforts will be much more successful when you focus on what you can control and act on in the present, and not dwell on memories of past events.