How to Forget Things On Purpose

Tips to cope with a bad memory

Verywell / Laura Porter

There are many reasons you might want to forget a memory. Some memories can make you cringe with embarrassment, while others may be more distressing or traumatic. Maybe you just don't want to be reminded of certain people or things from the past as you go about your day.

For some, memories fade away with time. However, especially if you have an anxiety condition such as social anxiety disorder (SAD) or a trauma-related disorder such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it may feel like you're constantly reliving moments from the past that you'd rather forget. For some, the sudden reappearance of certain memories can be deeply disturbing or even debilitating.

This article discusses some of the steps you can take if you want to forget a memory—or lessen its impact, at least.

How Does Memory Work?

The basic functions of memory are encoding, storing, and retrieving. Encoding is the process of learning information. Then, our brain stores information, either in short-term memory or long-term memory.

While short-term memories don't last long in the brain, some are passed along to our long-term memory, where there is limitless space. Retrieval is the process of recalling our memories. Sights and sounds in our environment can trigger our brain to retrieve a long-term memory, even if we'd rather not remember it.

While we tend to forget mundane information, our brains are more likely to store information that is attached to strong emotions. For instance, a series of studies found that participants were more likely to recall information that was tied to either negative or positive emotions better than they were able to recall neutral information.

Shaheen Lakhan, MD, PhD, FAAN, board-certified neurologist and member of the Verywell Mind Review Board, explains that forgetting a memory has more to do with processing the emotions attached to the memory.

Shaheen Lakhan, MD, PhD, FAAN

Many techniques to 'forget a bad memory' stem from gradually disassociating the memory from its negative emotional basis.

— Shaheen Lakhan, MD, PhD, FAAN

Researchers have long been seeking ways to help people intentionally forget. While it is not likely that you'll be able to remove unwanted memories from your brain, you can employ strategies to prevent the memory from disrupting your life.

How to Forget Things on Purpose

There are steps that you can take to lessen a memory's emotional impact and make it less intrusive. Remember that it takes time and practice to fade a memory, so don't become discouraged if it doesn't happen as quickly as you'd like.

  1. Identify your memory. It might sound counterintuitive, but if you want to forget something, it's helpful to first remember it. What are the sights, sounds, and feelings attached to the memory?
  2. Process your emotions. Instead of trying to avoid any unwanted feelings attached to the memory, let yourself feel them. You can also try working with a therapist to learn healthy ways to cope with difficult emotions.
  3. Find out what triggers your memory. Maybe every time you see the type of car your ex-partner drove, your brain retrieves a memory of your breakup. Or, maybe it's the smell of chicken soup that reminds you of your mom, and you become overwhelmed by memories of her funeral. Take note of the triggers that cause your memory to come back.
  4. Try substituting the memory. Dr. Lakhan notes, "It is better to replace our attention with healthy alternatives than to try to actively push down those memories." For instance, when you see the kind of car your ex-partner drove, try thinking of a time you drove to the beach in that car instead of focusing on the breakup memory. Eventually, you will train your brain to replace the undesirable memory with the new one.
  5. Practice a healthy lifestyle. Stress and a lack of sleep can trigger unwanted memories. Be sure you're getting enough sleep, eating a nutritious diet, and exercising. Maintain a healthy lifestyle that will boost your mental and emotional health. Practicing mindfulness can help keep your thoughts in the present moment.

Coping With Unwanted Memories

As you follow the steps to forget a memory, it's helpful to delve deeper into the work behind forgetting. There are practical tips you can follow that make your unwanted memories feel less intimidating and much more manageable.

Address Memory Triggers

Does the unwanted memory tend to crop up in specific situations? Or are there certain things, people, or settings that remind you of this memory?

Once you understand when the memory comes up most often, you can start taking steps to address the issue. While it might be tempting to simply try to avoid those triggers, finding realistic ways to cope when you are faced with your triggers is often a more effective and realistic solution in the long run.

Social Triggers and SAD

Letting go of memories can be difficult for many people, but it can be particularly challenging for people with social anxiety. It may feel as though you've built up a "memory bank" filled with all of the social situations you remember as being shameful and embarrassing.

Use Cognitive Behavioral Strategies

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of therapy that works to change the negative thoughts that contribute to psychological problems. You can utilize some of the strategies used in CBT on your own to help change how your respond to your memories.

One form of CBT known as exposure therapy can be particularly effective when you are dealing with a memory. The idea behind exposure therapy is to gradually and progressively expose yourself to the thing that you fear.

For example, if you have a memory of being bitten by a dog as a child, you may have developed a fear of dogs. By gradually exposing yourself to dogs in a safe and controlled manner, the memory that triggered your fear will gradually become more bearable.

Utilize Relaxation Techniques

Using relaxation techniques can be another effective tactic that can help reduce the negative impact of memories. Such techniques may include deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, and guided imagery.

Pairing these strategies with gradual exposure to your triggers can also help you learn new ways to calm yourself in response to those memories.

Practice Mindfulness

You could also try to practice mindfulness when memories come back to you. Mindfulness involves focusing on the present moment without worrying about the past or future.

Instead of allowing yourself to become engrossed in the memory, try bringing your attention to something in the present moment such as a sight or smell. Grounding yourself in the present moment can take your focus off of the memory and minimize its effects on your emotions.

Try Self-Acceptance

Perfectionism can sometimes make memories seem more distressing. If you have a need to always be seen as perfect, the memories of past mistakes can make it difficult to move forward.

If your memories center around times you have made mistakes, try making mistakes and doing things wrong on purpose. In time, if you are out there seeking to embarrass yourself, memories of those situations will have a different flavor.

Tell yourself that you deserve acceptance now, at the moment, rather than at some future time when you have become the "perfect" person. Practicing self-acceptance can help blunt the impact of those memories.

Develop Other Coping Strategies

When past experiences contribute to feelings of anxiety, it makes sense that the elimination of memories of these events would help to lessen your symptoms.

If you tend to have flashbacks or "cringe attacks" about shameful situations from the past, it may be helpful to keep a journal in which you record happy or positive events as well. Anytime you remember a negative memory, try to follow it up with a positive one.

In response to flashbacks, you could also have a few phrases that you repeat to yourself, such as "that event does not define me." Reminding yourself that your bad memories don't control or define who you are now can help reduce their power.

Above all else, don't use negative strategies to forget bad memories, such as using drugs or alcohol.

Why Emotional Memories Are Hard to Forget

Emotional memories are often difficult to forget because of the involvement of an area of the brain that plays an important role in controlling behaviors that are important to your survival, including feelings of fear.

Emotional memories are more memorable because of a structure in the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala plays an important role in how emotions and memories are processed and encoded. Research suggests that different parts of the amygdala are responsible for positive and negative memories.

Memories tend to be more memorable because when they are accompanied by intense emotions. Research suggests that the more intense the memory is, the more vivid the resulting memory of that event will be.

While being able to remember feelings of fear can be adaptive in some cases, it can become a problem when it leads to lingering memories that make it difficult to function in normal everyday life.

While letting go of old associations can be difficult, learning new ways to control these memories can help you feel less distressed when they come to mind.

Impact of a Negative Memory

Negative memories can impact behavior in a variety of ways. Sometimes you might go out of your way to avoid situations that might trigger a negative memory. In other cases, you might experience full-blown flashbacks where you feel as if you are re-living a traumatic event.

Some other ways that a bad memory might affect how your feel, think, or behave include:

  • Physical responses: A memory might trigger physical symptoms of anxiety or fear. For example, you might experience sweating, trembling, shaking, increased heart rate, and rapid breathing.
  • Emotional responses: A memory can also cause you to experience a wide range of emotions including sadness, anxiety, terror, or embarrassment.
  • Cognitive responses: Memories can also affect how you think about yourself and your ability to cope. For example, stressing out over the memory of a negative social experience can make you doubt your abilities to succeed in social situations.

When to Get Help

While there are a number of things you can do to help forget a memory or lessen its impact, there are times when you should consider seeking professional help. If memories are contributing to other symptoms such as depression, anxiety, intrusive thoughts, or feelings of panic, you should talk to your doctor.

A health professional can make a diagnosis based on your symptoms and recommend treatments that can help. They may recommend psychotherapy to help you learn new ways to cope with your memories. They may also prescribe medications that can help you manage associated symptoms of anxiety and depression, if appropriate.

New treatments for memory problems may also be on the horizon. Research has shown that a brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) gene variation is related to fear generation. BDNF gene therapy could be used in the future, by altering genes that contribute to fear and anxiety.

In the same way, the Tac2 gene pathway has been shown to reduce the storage of traumatic memories. As a result, a medication that blocks the activity of this pathway could prevent the storage of traumatic memories in the first place.

While this approach would be most useful for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), this type of research may also eventually inform negative memories in SAD.

Recap


You can't erase a bad memory, but you can learn new coping strategies that will lessen its power. Talk to your healthcare provider if bad memories are affecting your ability to cope.

A Word From Verywell

Thinking back on the past is normal, but when memories disrupt your everyday life, it can impact your mental health. If you notice your unwanted memories are becoming more frequent and unmanageable, consider consulting with your doctor. In particular, meeting with a therapist who specializes in CBT may be helpful to generate strategies to better cope with unwanted memories.

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