If your struggle with anxiety looks anything like mine did, you probably get frustrated by how easy it is to remember the fearful stuff (that one time I had a panic attack in the grocery store and couldn't go back for months without it feeling like I was walking into the lion's den) and how hard it can be to remember the good stuff (that gorgeous sunset from last night).
I remember several instances where my husband and I would be talking about the previous week. I would remember it as this dark, crummy experience, full of anxiety and fear and limitations. And he'd be sitting next to me with his mouth open, claiming that he thought the previous week was actually relatively light and fun-filled, and that he thought my anxiety hadn't been too terrible that week.
However, some recent research out of Ruhr-Universitaet-Bochum (say that five times fast) in Germany indicates that fearful memories are actually significantly easier to create and to hang onto.
Apparently stress hormones, like cortisol, which flood the body during and immediately after a fearful experience, help our brains "burn in" memories of that scary event. No doubt, that frustrating tendency is helpful from an evolutionary biology perspective - the more likely we are to remember scary and/or dangerous situations, the better we'll be able to avoid them or react faster to them in the future.
However, this new research has shown that cortisol and other stress hormones don't stop there. No no. Those super helpful hormones are actually released again and again in the future as we think back on particularly stressful or fearful events. This feedback loop is partly responsible for why terrifying memories are so haunting for people struggling with PTSD or why fearful thinking is so repetitive for people struggling with Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
However, the silver lining is that understanding how and why our bodies and brains are behaving this way, makes it easier for us to accept those fearful or anxious thoughts for what they are, basically a memory. Our bodies are designed to behave this way. We are not weird or crazy. Fear is supposed to be sticky.
Knowing that truth can take the edge off those fearful memories so we don't take them so personally and give them undue attention... which reduces the cortisol released as we remember those memories... which in turn reduces their power and frequency over time. Fear IS sticky, but it's no crazy glue!
Kelli Walker, R.N., M.S.N., CSMC
Check out Kelli’s recently released audio course, An End to Anxiety