Reframe, rewire, relax: Meaning of memories

If you’re a contractor or an electrician, my apologies. This is not about nailing up studs or rewiring faulty circuits in a house. There is, however, a “DIY” approach to reframing bad memories, rewiring your brain and developing new ways to deal with stress.

First, consider the concept of metacognition. This is a big, cool word to try out at a cocktail party. You’ll sound super brainy. All it means is thinking about our thoughts. People who develop the self-awareness to practice this can benefit from reframing and be less stressed.

Until recently, I would often be about to leave the house for an appointment and not be able to locate my car keys. They were often in the black hole of my purse, I couldn’t find them. I would get stressed and anxious.

Were my keys out to get me? Of course not. This is a simple example, but it is an illustration of how I noticed my stress response and decided that I was being silly. I reframed this as a stressful situation that I could predict and do something about (keys now live on the piano). I was practicing emotional regulation, one of the fastest-growing areas in the field of neuroscience. Emotional regulation means managing negative thoughts to be less negative.

When you are stressed, sad or angry, your amygdala, the little almond-shaped emotional center in your brain, is being hijacked. The amygdala is hypersensitive to perceived threats, both physical and emotional, including threats to status. This threat response happens in about 250 milliseconds. That response makes it harder for the creative, focusing part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex to solve the problem. Cortisol, a stress hormone, is flowing, and so is adrenaline.

Consider the scenario of your boss telling you that your work is not up to snuff. Fear is flowing, hijacking your amygdala and making you want to flee (end the conversation) or fight (get defensive). Your brain searches for the meaning behind your boss’s words. Maybe she means to fire you. You can probably feel your heart pound and your hands get clammy. The mental machinery of suffering is the same for this type of “social pain” as it is for physical pain. In your brain, the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex are activated. Since this is adjacent to the premotor area, the process of forming an emotional expression in the body begins. This happens even if you attempt to suppress any visible emotion.

Years later, you may think about a bad experience and feel the same emotional pain as you did the moment it happened. The term for this is rumination, taken from the animal world. Cows and other ruminants re-chew their food, as we do our unhappy memories.

Here’s where reframing comes in. Reframing doesn’t mean tamping down a negative memory in an attempt to forget it. It means quite the opposite. Suppressing negative emotions can lead to even worse emotional upset as we recall unpleasant experiences. This can lead to consistently high cortisol levels. High cortisol raises blood pressure, reduces immunity, increases the risk of diabetes, and shrinks the hippocampus, a part of the brain the handles longer term memory creation and recall. And you’re less fun to be with.

Memories change a little with each recollection. You can use this to your advantage and recast a memory with a more positive storyline.

Here is a quick reframing how to. First, put yourself into a comfortable physical position, and focus on taking long, slow breaths. Then, focus on your negative emotional experience and write it down or share it with someone you trust. Next, acknowledge your interpretation of its meaning, such as an attack on your status or your sense of fairness. Finally, choose to put a new frame on the meaning by attaching a more positive emotion to the experience. Did it deliver an insight, uncover a strength, or reveal a life lesson? This reappraisal helps neutralizing your limbic system, giving your thinking, focusing brain (the PFC) more room to think and focus on more important things, like the future instead of the past.

Let me offer a personal example. I used to dwell on a tough situation that happened at a job many years ago. There were layoffs, lots of them and I knew my time was coming. A hurtful comment from a higher-up and the associated bad feelings would still resurface years later. Then, recently, that person “friended” me on Facebook. It was time to reframe. I recalled that what helped me through those last months on the job (yes, I knew months in advance about my departure) was the many internal customers who made it a point to regularly check in with me. They sat, asked me how I was, asked what I needed, and listened. And they threw me a great going-away party. Now when I think about that difficult phase, I realize how much they valued me. The emotion that now comes to me when I reflect on the experience is gratitude.

In reframing, when you attach a new emotion to an old experience, you are rewiring your brain — new circuits over old. While you wouldn’t want to reframe all negative emotions (after all, some fear is good – it keeps us from taking dangerous risks), practicing metacognition can help rewire your brain to handle stressful people and situations differently.

When life’s stresses activate your amygdala with strong negative emotions, breathe. Focus on your interpretation of the event, and acknowledge it. Question your interpretation and consider other ways to interpret the event. If you want assistance with these thinking tools, consider getting a professional coach. Reframe is in every good coach’s toolbox.

Consider the wisdom of a man who knew a lot about bad experiences. Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Susan Strating is co-owner of NeuroSense Consulting, an HR consulting company specializing in neuroscience-based business coaching, management training, and leadership development.


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