Ask a Therapist: How Do I Deal With Bad Memories That Pop Into My Head?

Strategies for Dealing With Memories That Upset You

Upsetting thoughts might follow you around.

 Verywell / Catherine Song

In the “Ask a Therapist” series, I’ll be answering your questions about all things mental health and psychology. Whether you are struggling with a mental health condition, coping with anxiety about a life situation, or simply looking for a therapist's insight, submit a question. Look out for my answers to your questions every Friday in the Healthy Mind newsletter.

A Reader Asks

I have several bad memories wired in my brain and I want to forget them. I cringe every time I remember what happened. How can I make it so these things don’t just pop up in my head anymore? 

Amy Answers

Bad memories can be quite disturbing. And sometimes, the more we try to push them away, the more they come back to haunt us. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to deal with the bad memories that keep popping up.

Emotional Memories Leave an Imprint

It’s unclear from your question what type of bad memories you’re dealing with. Perhaps it’s a traumatic memory, like a near-death experience. Or maybe, you’re recalling some painful (yet not necessarily traumatic) times in your life, like the time you didn’t get invited to a party or the time when someone said something that really hurt your feelings. 

Either way, we know that emotional memories leave a big imprint on our brains. You probably can’t recall mundane details of your childhood or what was said in a staff meeting two years ago. But, you will remember the times you got rejected, felt terrified, or experienced extreme embarrassment.

Your brain responds differently to experiences that are highly emotional. The amygdala heightens your sensory awareness when you’re facing a highly emotional experience which may encode memories more effectively. 

Recognize Your Triggers

Have you noticed what seems to trigger your bad memories? Quite often, certain sounds, smells, or experiences spark our brains to think about certain things.

For example, if you got teased in the cafeteria as a kid—and you usually ate an orange for lunch—the smell of oranges might trigger your bad memories. Or, if you were in a warzone, loud bangs (like fireworks) might send your body into panic-mode. 

When you recognize your triggers, you can decide how to respond to them. You might decide it’s just easier to avoid the things that trigger your bad memories.

Or, you might learn that it’s easier to respond to those memories when you know why they’re popping into your brain. Seeing that they aren’t as random as you might think may help you feel more in control. And telling yourself, “I’m remembering that right now because I’m seeing something that reminds me of that time in my life,” may help you feel better too.

You also might be able to start associating those things with pleasant memories. For example, if you are triggered by the smell of oranges, you might start eating oranges when you are doing fun activities. This may help your brain start to associate citrus scents with positive feelings. 

Write the Facts in a Journal

You might find that the more you try to suppress a bad memory, the more you think about it. That’s why exposure therapy may be able to help.

In cases of PTSD, where someone experienced a traumatic experience that causes nightmares, flashbacks, and other symptoms that interfere with everyday life, therapists often use exposure therapy to help them recover.

This may involve talking about the experience until it doesn’t feel so scary anymore. 

Regardless of whether you are struggling with unpleasant memories or all-out traumatic experiences, exposure therapy may help you sort things out.

You might find writing about your experience in a journal helps. But, you may want to stick to the facts of the events. Rather than dive into how you felt or how horrible you felt, describe the facts as objectively as possible. 

This may help reorganize how your brain this memory and it may help you feel less upset when you recall those memories at other times.

Talk to a Therapist

Talking to a licensed mental health professional may be a good idea as well. Therapists are well-trained in helping people deal with traumatic events and bad memories.

A therapist may help you change the narrative you tell yourself. For example, if certain memories cause you to feel bad about yourself, a therapist may help you see that you’re not at fault for something bad that happened to you.

Or, a therapist may assist you in responding to those unpleasant memories in a healthy way so they aren’t as disturbing to you anymore.

By Amy Morin, LCSW, Editor-in-Chief
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.