Every second we are alive, our brain functions. At a very basic level it maintains our breathing, our blood flow, our body temperature, and other aspects that allow us to stay alive and thinking. Emotional Memory Management, or EMM, is concerned with the thinking and memory part of brain functioning — and how we can use it to lead happier lives. This article by our Consulting Clinical Psychologist Dr Joseph M. Carver offers a non-technical look at emotional memory and provides practical tips which can help you establish positive control over your emotional memory.
Brain Operation and Daily Use
In all discussions, feelings, and activities during the day, the brain is constantly pulling files. What feelings are contained in those files influences how our mood will be that day. Files can be very helpful if we have a lot of good files.
While good files can be helpful in terms of changing our mood, making us feel better, or providing a bright spot in the middle of an otherwise tough day, bad files can strongly impair our communications with others. Many times, a routine discussion, debate, argument, or hassle can cause files to enter our brain and give us difficulty.
In working with others, after awhile we begin to tell when a file is out. For example, when you hear words such as, “Well, when I was young…”, “Just like last week…”, or “This is not the first time…” — a file has been pulled. If we were to videotape a discussion, we would immediately learn that all discussion, debate, and agreement is lost when a file comes out. This brings us to another rule:
Rule: You can’t argue with a file.
When a file comes out, it is as though we have placed a tape in our VCR. The tape begins playing and we hear the same discussion or feel the same feelings over and over. Husbands and wives refer to this sometimes as “broken record” conversations. We get the same lectures, the same anger, the same resentment, the same everything — it’s in the file. As an example, two people can be discussing whether they have enough money to purchase a lawnmower. The wife mentions using a particular credit card — that pulls a bad file in her husband, perhaps the “VISA” file. At that point, the husband launches into a long story about credit cards, high interest, harassing letters, and so forth. When that file is opened up, a discussion about the lawnmower becomes useless.
The way files open and close in our brain can be a real problem with communication. While we may try to remain business-like and focus on a topic of discussion, we can’t help but pull files. This brings us to another rule:
Rule: Any stimulation can pull a file.
Our body has five senses: vision, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. A file can be pulled by any of those senses. Example: The Vietnam combat veteran who automatically thinks of his combat experience when he hears a medical helicopter.
Think of how we automatically think of high school and related events by hearing an old song. The five senses are very powerful when it comes to pulling files. Something else can pull files as well.
Emotions can pull files. We must remember that the brain is always looking for files in what we see, hear, and what we feel. As an example, emotions become attached to files. An adult who has had a bad first marriage may automatically pull a jealousy file any time his second wife mentions, “I might be late”. The anxiety in that statement causes the brain to search for a file that make sense — it pulls up a jealousy file from the first marriage. If the husband allows the file to stay out, he will become insecure, jealous, and suspicious for no reason in the present. In second marriages, bad file-pulling is a very common yet very hazardous activity.
Another common way that emotions pull files is in the case of a panic attack. When an individual suffers a panic attack, a powerful brain chemical is released in the frontal area of the brain which creates the panic attack. After an attack however, we have clearly made a bad file — our brain remembers the attack and the feelings. Months later, we may be in a crowded store or in an emotionally tense situation when the brain recognizes that emotion — it’s seen it before during the panic attack. At that point, the brain immediately pulls the “panic attack” file. If we allow the file to stay out or pay attention to it, we are quite likely to have another panic attack — that’s what’s in the file.
Lets keep in mind that famous actors and actresses have known this method for years. If they want to cry on stage, they can pull a sensitive file from their personal life and within 90 seconds, tears are flowing. Remember: With each emotion or experience, the brain is always searching to see if we have a file on that topic.
Files and Marriage/Relationships
To solve any problem, a typical marital discussion should not last more than 10 to 15 minutes. If you’re going to buy a car or discuss what to do about Aunt Gladys, it shouldn’t take a three hour discussion. Discussions that last longer than 15 minutes usually contain files. In discussing whether to visit Aunt Gladys over Christmas, the discussion may start out well at first — then we start pulling files. After three hours of arguing, we find that we have discussed the fact that certain relatives don’t like us, that we don’t like certain relatives, that so and so is the black sheep, and on and on. What began as a business-like conversation has been ruined by files that have been pulled as the discussion continued.
You’ll know a file is pulled because the direction of the discussion will not make sense. We know a file is operating when either the content or mood doesn’t make sense to the discussion at hand.
A teenager who asks permission to go to a drive-in movie and is suddenly met with anger, resentment, accusations, and suspiciousness by the parent — she has run into a severe communication block. Mother or dad has pulled a file from their teen years — a bad file. Again, we always know a file is out because the content or mood doesn’t fit the present situation. We must then remember: you can’t talk to a file. People who argue with the content of a file have as much chance as an individual who argues with the television while a videotape is playing.
Files and Depression
As mentioned, when our brain chemistry changes during depression, bad files are immediately pulled, as many as we will allow. These files will keep pulling until the automatic file-pulling is stopped by medication or treatment, or until we take control.
One particularly bad problem with depression is pulling old files. Again, when we pull an old file we relive the emotion — that’s what’s in the file. We have seen cases where patients have discussed a horrible experience from 15 to 20 years ago stating, “I though I got over it, I guess I didn’t!” Truthfully, they have gotten over that experience — but the file is still powerful. Depressed individuals suffer from the “garbage truck”, that truck-load of horrible files that prompt them to think about childhood trauma/abuse, previous relationships and rejections, and any time they have failed within recollection. Again, the file makes us relive the emotions at that time. Even 20 years beyond the present, if we bring out a horrible file, we will feel horrible.
Clients who are depressed are encouraged not to pay attention to the various files being pulled. Again, when a depressed brain operates on automatic, it pulls nothing but garbage/trash. If you are depressed, be prepared to experience a tremendous amount of “mental garbage.” Please, take no action on that garbage.
Files and Anxiety
We have all heard of the Guru who can change his blood pressure, slow his heart or breathing rate, stop bleeding cuts, or change his brain waves by meditation. As our brain controls these physical reactions/conditions, those experiences are possible with proper brain/thought control. Anxiety consists of both thinking symptoms (worry, fear, dread, anticipation of misfortune, etc.) and physical symptoms — actually more physical than thinking! Typical physical manifestations of anxiety include jitteriness, trembling, muscle aches, eyelid twitch, strained facial expression, sweating, heart pounding, dry mouth, clammy hands, upset stomach, frequent urination, poor concentration, and the feeling of having a lump in your throat — just to name a few! What a deal — you receive all the above in just one package, “anxiety”.
Anxiety can be paired with certain events, creating a very strong file that contains both the anxious event (public speaking, air flights, etc,) and the physical reaction as well. When the situation is recognized by the brain, the anxious/trauma file is pulled — and the brain chemicals are released. It’s easy to see why files with anxiety are so powerful — they seem to light up the entire body system from head to toe!
Files and Physical/Mental Trauma
One of the most common situations in which emotional memory files create severe problems is in physical or mental trauma. Many of us have experienced trauma in our life. Of the people living in New York City, 85 percent have been mugged/robbed. Studies suggest that 45 percent of all females have been sexually molested or assaulted in some manner. Trauma, or severe emotional memory, can be created by physical assaults, combat experiences, crime, death of a loved one, viewing severe accidents, surgery, or brush-with-death experiences.
In trauma, the brain not only memorizes everything about the event — including the emotions — but adds the surroundings as well. If we are assaulted in our home, suddenly our home is no longer comfortable due to the memories it produces. A severe automobile accident may prompt people to quit driving completely or develop panic attacks if they near the site of the accident. Trauma Emotional Memory (EM) files are perhaps the strongest emotional files and often create long-lasting phobias or difficulties if not properly handled.
Old Emotional Memory (EM) trauma files are often at the heart of long-standing difficulties. Early sexual trauma, for example, can create poor sexual response/interest that will later affect marriages. Physical assault can produce problems with physical closeness many years later. While such situations are very troublesome, we are reminded that the brain is simply operating on automatic — there are no “positive” files for reference. Correction is often a matter of taking manual control of those situations, creating new files, and “watering down” the old files.
Rule: The brain pulls the most recent and most powerful file first.
Imagine being stressed-out for six months, almost at the breaking point. You decide to stop by Kroger’s to pick up some bread and milk. While in the store, you run into someone you dislike which immediately pulls a bad file. As you continue to see them in the store, you keep a file out and your mood becomes worse. At that point, your brain, already overtaxed, kicks in with a panic attack. You feel panicky, you begin to smother, and you feel as though you are going to have a heart attack. You end up leaving your groceries and running out of the store.
You have thus created a panic-attack file with a label “Kroger” on it. Therefore, the next time you drive by Kroger’s or stop for milk, your brain will pull the panic-attack file first. You’ll develop a feeling — “I can’t go in there!” Whenever we experience anxiety, the brain makes a file and includes the circumstances. This is exactly how people become agoraphobic — or become fearful of leaving their home. Several agoraphobic patients have areas of the town that are “off limits” — that area of the town pulls a panic file.
We’ve all heard of people who have suffered an automobile accident and for many months later are afraid to drive: driving pulls a horrible accident file. Perhaps a familiar example is the popular movie “Top Gun.” After losing his best friend in an out-of-control jet, our hero Tom Cruise experiences a panic attack after a similar event later in the movie. Fortunately for the movie, he talks his way out of the panic attack and goes on to become the hero. Again, just about any experience can pull a bad file and we must protect ourselves from these files.
After a crisis or emotional upset, a file is made. If that file has a strong emotional value, it will be the first file pulled. Example: A relative by the name of Bill dies. For many months from that point, his death will be the first file pulled when anyone mentions the name. To avoid the constant reminder of sadness, when his name is mentioned we “skip” the first file and pull other “Bill” files, fishing trips, holidays with relatives, etc.
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- Are You Dating a Loser? Identifying Losers, Controllers and Abusers
- Depression: Understanding Causes, Symptoms and Treatment
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- Stockholm Syndrome: The Psychological Mystery of Loving an Abuser
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