When a picture evokes painful memories

A trip down the memory lane may lead to confronting details best left avoided. However, the way we train our minds can make a difference in mitigating the effect

Sudha Umashanker Published Sep 28, 2021 19:19:17 IST
When a picture evokes painful memories

Our memories have a way of getting triggered. Sometimes all it takes is a photo or song, or even a whiff of rain—then comes the deluge. Long-forgotten events, and characters come back to life; full-fledged reenactments follow, right down to the minutest detail, no matter how painful or joyful.

Take the case of 66-year-old Sahana Ramakrishnan, a filmmaker and creative communications professional from Chennai, who came upon an old family photograph of her, her older siblings and their parents. Three of them had by then passed away. A flood of memories bubbled up, and with it a host of questions. Why didn’t her father and sibling enjoy a more harmonious relationship? What made their arguments always escalate into a slanging match accompanied by door slamming and throwing of things?

She remembered finding out about how it all started from her mother. A minor incident between her brother and an employee of their father had snowballed. The brother, a young boy at the time, had taken the lady’s pencil without permission, in response to which she called him a thief. How much was meant in jest is anyone’s guess but the brother, greatly offended, told her to shut up. The father thought the son should learn to watch his words and gave him a thrashing. Visiting relatives soon got involved with the incident and most took the boy's side. Sahana adopted much of her brother’s resentment at the perceived injustice and absorbed similar judgments. Over the years, the matter was forgotten but it only took a glimpse at an old photo to bring back the same emotions she felt then. How could it be that such an innocuous object could have the power to turn back time?

The answer, it turns out, lies in our own minds. Says Dr. Ennapadam S. Krishnamoorthy, senior consultant of behavioral neurology and neuropsychiatry, and founder of the Buddhi Clinic in Chennai, “It is very important that we work through the emotions that objects (such as photographs) evoke in us. Memories have a strong influence on our emotions and the importance of their role cannot be downplayed. From the perspective of the psyche, the unconscious mind is like a laundry basket into which we dump all thoughts and feelings too intense or disturbing for our consciousness to deal with. When we crack open this box by exploring old memories and events, our emotions associated with them emerge, often taking us by surprise.”

Dr. Smriti Vallath (Ph.D.), a psychologist, researcher and lead at the Center for Trauma Studies and Innovation, The Banyan, explains the brain processes involved in dealing with trauma this way: “Past traumas and negative life experiences (NLEs) have their own impact on us and their effects manifest in many forms. When something ‘bad’ happens, we cope with the event in one of three ways—functionally and in a way that helps us move on, ignore it which leads to other issues such as interpersonal conflicts, problems at school, work, depression, health issues and so on, or deal with it in a way we believe settles the issue but suppressed and unresolved aspects break free when we encounter a blast from the past.”

The amygdala, the part of our brain that processes raw emotional material, allows you to fight, flight or freeze in a given situation while the hippocampus encodes the information as memory units. Typically, the prefrontal cortex—the part controlling higher cognitive processes such as thinking and problem-solving processes emotional information (from the amygdala) by connecting it with facts stored in your memory (through the hippocampus) and produces a reaction as a result. For example, when confronted by a strange man following you while walking alone on a dark road, fear and experience (personal or learned) produces the decision to call a friend or cross the street.

In cases of emotional or physical trauma, the magnitude of incoming emotional information such as fear, despair or anger, triggers the hippocampus and amygdala while the prefrontal cortex is less active. This is why you may often say things you don't mean when you're angry or hurt. The disparity in activation leads to you remembering the emotions accompanying an event but without the required logical or fact-based processing that could help one really cope.”

The key to resolution, experts suggest, is accepting that not everything is in our control. Says Krishnamoorthy “Accept that people around one (from children to adults) are individuals with unique destinies. We are sometimes merely the witness of all that is taking place and should view whatever plays out with detachment.”

Listing various practical solutions Vallath says “Do what you think is best for you. You could simply put the picture away and never deal with it, or come to understand that while bad things happen, but there is also some good (perhaps the one occasion when there was peace) and that today life is different from what it was. You could also revisit these memories and feelings with a professional therapist who can help you process, gain perspective, and put it to bed. Remember while you may not be able to change your past, you can always help yours as well as another's present.”

As for taking a call on whether the father did right by disciplining, Vallath points out “Most parents do the best they can in a given situation and mean well. Often, they tend to repeat patterns from their own childhood. ” The bottom line: When an emotion arises, it is asking to be acknowledged, embraced, released and refined, not buried with the hope that time cures all.

*The name of the personal account has been altered due to reasons of privacy. 

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