Tripping in front of a crowd. A bad breakup. A flubbed line during a presentation.
We all have bad memories and embarrassing moments we’d prefer to forget. Some are quickly left behind. Other events can stick with you, like heartbreak. Letting go of the past isn’t easy.
We might struggle with traumatic memories in particular. Traumatic memories are intense and seem like they take control of our whole bodies. They can be visual flashbacks that cause us to feel physically ill. These can cause us to experience headaches, profuse sweating, stomach aches, and feel weak.
We may also feel the impact of extreme stress after we think we’ve moved past the flashback. So while it’s understandable to want to put your energy toward living a happier life, that’s often easier said than done.
But there are benefits when you learn to forget traumatic moments from the past — or remember them with less intense emotions. That’s true too for unpleasant memories of the past that aren’t traumatic — like embarrassing moments from middle school that still occasionally flash in your brain.
In doing so, you’ll adopt a growth mindset, enabling you to think about the future, grow, and experience all life offers.
Find out more about the effects of traumatic memories and past emotional pain — and how to forget the past, or at least, move past it.
Understanding traumatic memories
The American Psychological Association defines trauma as an emotional (and potentially physical) response to any terrible event, like an assault or a natural disaster. Less serious events, like tripping in front of a crowd or receiving a bad grade, still result in negative feelings and discomfort when we reflect on these moments.
But a trauma response can make it seem like we’re living in the past and experiencing the event just as intensely.
If you experience long-term effects from a traumatic event that disrupt your quality of life, you may be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD can cause physical symptoms like migraines or nausea, difficulty sustaining relationships, and more.
3 types of responses to trauma
Traumatic memories manifest in different ways and can affect any aspect of your life, from your career to your relationships. This can dictate how you live, your choices, and your overall physical well-being or emotional well-being.
Here are three types of trauma response:
1. Emotional responses
Recalling negative memories can cause people to feel all sorts of emotions, such as anger, sadness, and embarrassment. Memories can also be a source of anxiety for people.
Those who have endured violent incidents may have the emotions and memories of such incidents triggered by unexpected circumstances. Returning to the scene of a trauma, for example, could cause a person to experience the same fear or anger they felt at the time.
2. Cognitive responses
A true traumatic event isn’t something simple like spilling food on yourself. Instead, it’s a significantly harmful experience that negatively impacts cognitive capabilities.
When PTSD symptoms take over, we don’t have as much energy for our daily lives. This can result in cognitive difficulties like forgetfulness and brain fog. We might misplace things often or miss meetings and bill payments due to our difficulty concentrating.
Individuals with PTSD often don’t cope as well with minor incidences and daily disruptions, either. Any confrontation that causes feelings similar to the traumatic event can trigger its memory, meaning a simple dispute with a family member might cause the event’s reliving.
3. Physical responses
Traumatic events might trigger people to respond physically to situations. You might sweat or have an increased heart rate when thinking over an embarrassing or scary situation. More severe trauma might prompt panic attacks or physical pain associated with the incident, like a painful wrist when recalling a bad sprain.
Research has also found that our bodies can respond to traumatic events by struggling to sleep. Our bodies feel exhausted, but we’re so agitated that we can’t relax. A lack of sleep contributes to other physical, cognitive, and emotional responses. If we can’t rest our bodies, our minds can’t rest, either.
Traumatic events and the associated stress can cause disturbances and pain in our gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal, and respiratory systems.
The relationship between emotions and memories
Emotion and memory are intrinsically linked. Our brains store the emotions experienced in our memory of a moment.
You can thank a structure in our brain called the amygdala for this. The amygdala is in charge of emotional regulation and how memories are processed through our brain. Memories we recall easily are usually associated with intense emotions — negative or positive.
When we pay attention to the memories fired by our amygdala, we can reflect on our achievements and learn from past mistakes. Recollecting painful memories and past experiences is one way of improving emotional intelligence.
We can remember how difficult something was to notice how far we’ve come or use a positive memory to improve our current headspace. These recollections contribute to our moving forward.
Focusing only on negative experiences isn’t altogether useful, so it’s important to try and see the positive in these experiences and let go when feelings are too challenging.
Research into the links between memory and emotion has found that reframing negative memories to focus on positive aspects creates more healthy brain functioning. There’s something to be said about the power of positive thinking.
How to reflect on past experiences
After a difficult experience, you’ll likely go through a period of reflection. You might play the event over in your head or mourn any changes the situation caused. This is a perfectly normal and healthy response. Reflecting lets us accept the experience into our lives and make any necessary changes.
If the experience was particularly traumatic, reflection might be painful or even unnecessary. If you’re feeling safe, ready, and willing, here are a few ways to turn your mind toward the experience:
2. Practicing mindfulness or meditation
3. Going for a long walk
4. Chatting about it with a friend or family member
As you reflect, ask yourself the following questions:
Did I develop a new skill or gain resiliency due to this event? A bad breakup might conjure up some negative emotions, but that shouldn’t negate what you gain from experience. Purposefully focus on your personal growth to get more from every situation.
What would help me move past what happened? Staying present to appreciate what we have and turning our minds toward the future to focus on our goals are productive habits. But to move forward, we must make peace with our past. Otherwise, stress triggers will prevent us from moving on.
Is there a friend or family member I trust to talk to about this? Embarrassing, sad, or traumatic experiences are difficult to talk about. But when we don’t share, everyone feels alone in their more troubling experiences. You might feel more supported and less alone after sharing.
Were there any positive moments before or after this experience I could focus on? Don’t let negative feelings distract you from positive ones. Sure, you fumbled during a presentation which caused embarrassment. But you also spoke articulately and remembered every important fact. That’s worth celebrating!
Remember: there’s a time limit to reflecting on the past. Once you feel you’ve come to terms with what’s happened and can draw some positives from the experience, move forward, taking a positive outlook and those lessons with you.
15 tips to forget the past and move on with your life
There’s no one way to move on from negative or traumatic memories. Some people find success with specific strategies that others struggle with.
While you check out these 15 tips, consider if any complement your existing routine and lifestyle or if you’re willing to try them out:
1. Keep your distance from people or locations that might trigger adverse reactions
2. Incorporate self-care into your daily routine
3. Spend time with positive people with whom you have healthy relationships. The way they see you may inspire you to see yourself differently
4. Swap out negative thoughts for positive self-talk
5. Let yourself feel your emotions rather than deny them. All emotions are valid — it’s our responses to them that we need to be attentive to
6. Take a social media hiatus to live in the present moment
7. Understand that some people may never apologize to you
8. Forgive yourself for any past mistakes you’ve made
9. When you carry resentment, you’re only hurting yourself, not the person you resent. Forgive others, which is more about your well-being than theirs
10. Write down your goals and make a plan for your progress
11. Practice mindfulness to help recenter your focus
12. Acknowledge how far you’ve come. Be grateful to those who’ve helped you and, most importantly, to yourself
13. Recognize the damage that trauma can do to your mental and physical health, and be patient with yourself as you recover
14. Make new memories to distract you from old ones
15. Accept that you can’t change the past
When to seek professional help
With some bad memories — particularly ones rooted in trauma — you may need help to move on. There’s no need to struggle alone while working through a traumatic event’s impact.
Studies have shown that our overall mental health is better when we have a solid social support system. Our social support can come from friends, family, and even coworkers. It’s also been found that people without social support are at an increased risk of mental health issues.
The positive impact that our support system has on us helps us feel more motivated, safe and loved.
But, while your best friend could be a great person to talk to, they might not understand or be equipped to give you the support you need. Sometimes, it’s impossible to leave the past behind without proper help.
See a licensed mental health professional about memories and events that amplify depression, anxiety, or PTSD. A social worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist can suggest and start you on a treatment plan to make a significant difference. They could offer coping strategies you never thought of before or prescribe medication.
Your next steps
You can’t resolve the emotional pain of traumatic events and bad memories with a Band-Aid. It’s hard to accept that there’s no way to go back in time and prevent those events from happening or live without those experiences.
Sometimes you may take a few steps backward, but healing is never linear. Learning how to forget past mistakes isn’t an easy process. Along the way, make sure you’re patient with yourself. A victory is a victory, no matter how big or small.
Learning how to forget about the past means you’re allowing yourself to live in the present. It’s a way of life that will benefit you in the long run. You give yourself room for your career to develop and your personal life will to you with confidence and healthy well-being. It’s the life we all deserve to live.