Most people worry about forgetting things, but sometimes you remember things that you wish you could forget. Persistence is the tendency to continually revisit a memory; it can be something mildly annoying like a song that sticks in your head or it can be a troubling or a traumatic event. Persistence often has an intrusive quality in the sense that you experience the disturbing recollection as a thought or an image that is forced into your awareness.
In the brain, persistent negative memories are thought to be mediated by the amygdala and other limbic areas that respond to fear, anxiety, and emotionally charged information. Several types of psychiatric disorders involve persistent, negative memories. Depression and persistent negative thoughts are linked in a vicious cycle; as the depressed person ruminates over real or imagined unpleasant events, his or her self-esteem erodes and the dysphoric mood deepens.
A symptom of many types of anxiety disorders is the persistent recall of a frightening event. Phobias, for example, frequently stem from an earlier encounter with an object or a situation that caused an overwhelming sense of fear. The visceral "memory" of the fearful encounter remains a persistent force, shaping the phobic person's behavior for years or decades.
A core feature of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that can develop after a person experiences a traumatic event (for example, sexual assault or war), is the persistent intrusion of unwanted memories. With PTSD, persistent memories assume the form of flashbacks and nightmares of the traumatic event, causing a person to relive the ordeal. A flashback is a special form of memory in which the individual loses contact with present reality and is thrust back in time to the traumatic situation; the psychological distance that characterizes normal mem-40, ory is lost.
Many people with phobias and PTSD learn to control persistent memories through therapy that involves guided imagery, or visualization. With this technique, a therapist helps the person learn to envision the object of the phobia or the traumatic incident in a graduated approach, which precludes the experience of intense fear. Once the emotional response to the stimulus diminishes, the memory of it becomes less persistent.
As for people without psychiatric disorders, what's the best way to eliminate a persistent memory? Don't try to ignore it. Research shows that willing yourself to avoid thinking about something makes you think of it all the more. It's better to let a persistent memory run its course. Eventually, it will intrude upon your consciousness less and less until it finally recedes altogether.
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