Why Does Emotion Connect With Memory?

The brain is a unique and complicated organ. It stores many things including memories and produces emotions. You may find that certain memories bring up emotions along with them. They might be feelings that you had in the moment of that memory, like joy or fear, or they may be feelings that your current self has now regarding that memory, like guilt or awkwardness. The same is true in reverse. Have you ever noticed that when one embarrassing thing happens to you, your brain tends to bring up a bunch of other embarrassing things you've done? In either case, you can't deny that memories and emotions go hand in hand, and may change throughout your life. How does this happen, and why? Read on to find out.

Your Brain's Memory and Emotions Process

Your brain is designed to have constant flashes and persistent memory fluctuations. It is all a part of the synchronization between your emotion and memory. Your memories of your past lifestyle of substance use are tinged with different emotions. Especially with something habitual like drinking or using drugs, a narrative of emotions and memories is created in your brain. Certain situations and emotions can arise and trigger memories of that time in your life, whether you want them or not.

Neurological processes in your brain record and understand every scenario and store information about how to react in the future if a similar situation were to arise. This means that when you encounter situations where your reaction would be to use or drink—such as at a party or when you've had a particularly stressful day—your brain recognizes those emotions and uses your memory to tell you that you should turn to substances. This is why it's so important to learn healthy coping mechanisms so that your reaction to triggering situations switches from substance use to something that helps keep you sober.

Many individuals wonder why feelings are recorded with the memory rather than just the memory itself. This has to do with the fact that as the brain stores memories, it is influenced by the chemical fluctuations your brain experiences due to emotions at the moment. This tinges the memory with the feelings that are going on as the situation plays out and gets stored.

Emotion, Memory, and Your Brain

When your brain recognizes a similar situation to one stored as a memory, it brings up those same feelings that are attached to the memory. The stronger your memory, whether it is associated with happiness, fear, or curiosity, the stronger the emotional response will be if you find yourself in a similar situation.

Your memory and emotions are great learning tools and can help you avoid falling back into unhealthy habits if you recognize a trigger before it happens. Though you've done the work of getting sober and completing treatment, your previous lifestyle habits are still there in your memories, and you must be on your guard for them. If you know that a situation will be similar to one attached to memories that will bring up emotions that cause cravings, either avoid that situation or make a plan to get through it clean.

Teaching Yourself to Move Past Emotion by Creating New Memories

You are taught coping mechanisms to rebalance yourself and regulate your emotions in addiction recovery. Through meditation and mindfulness, you have trained your brain to recognize specific triggers and emotions when unforeseen events occur. If you learn to recognize the triggers and types of emotions that lead you down the paths you don’t want to pursue, you can retrain your brain to bring up memories of working through triggers and cravings so that your emotions can't derail you. 

As you develop this practice after leaving treatment, your brain will recognize it as a healthy emotional behavior, thus implementing it to activate when you need it the most. The more you avoid or work through triggers without giving in to emotional or physical relapses, the more your brain will recognize that as the correct response when faced with situations that might lead you to drink or use drugs. 

By doing this, you overlay memories of substance use with memories of sobriety and resilience. Your brain is complicated, but there are ways to make it work for you rather than against you. Don't let memories and feelings get in the way of your progress. If you want to find a way to manage your emotions or need help with substance use, there is help for you.

At NorthStar Transitions, we understand how the brain and memory can activate emotional, reactive behavior. The connection between emotions and memories can trigger potential relapse or guide you down an unhealthy path. If you feel that your lifestyle choices, feelings, or memories are hindering you from moving forward in a positive, healthy direction, we encourage you to contact us today. You deserve to feel like you can take on anything and be in control of your life. Life can be hard after treatment, and we know how many individuals may face situations that bring up an unconscious, unhelpful emotional reaction. If you feel your feelings are uncontrolled and you need help overlaying old memories with new ones, we urge you to reach out to your peers, use your resources and tools from treatment or consider further aftercare plans with a professional. Contact NorthStar Transitions to help with your emotions, memories, and lifestyle choices at (303) 558-6400.

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