Memories are Physiological
Our imagination allows us to go beyond remembering past events and to actually re-experience them. In fact, vivid memories are commonly associated with the same physiological changes we experienced during the original event; this is why vivid pleasant memories are so welcome. Likewise, vivid disturbing memories can sometimes make us feel just as bad as we did when we went through the original experience, and we quite naturally go to great lengths to avoid them.
Pushing Memories Away Makes Them Stronger
Unfortunately, here we run into the great paradox that accompanies all forms of experiential avoidance: trying to suppress unpleasant memories strengthens them and increases their damaging effects. The antidote to re-experiencing the unpleasant memory is not to attempt to shut it out; the antidote is to invite it in and explore it—not by analyzing it, but rather by allowing ourselves to learn that the feelings associated with the memory are survivable and can serve to make us stronger.
Memories and Health
When memories of traumatic events, such as witnessing or being the target of violence, intrude into our minds on a regular basis, our psychophysiological responses can ruin our health. Unfortunately, a large segment of the population suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The original event can be a war experience, a gang-related experience, rape, ritual abuse, any type of child abuse, or a traumatic car accident. The antidote to PTSD always includes learning to be present with the traumatic memory rather than avoid it and to recognize that the content of our imaginations is not the same as present-moment reality. This takes time and is best accomplished by working with someone who has extensive professional experience with PTSD.
Healthy Practices Are Not Always Healthy
Some forms of meditation and other activities that are generally considered healthy, such as yoga, tai chi, or other physical disciplines, when practiced in order to avoid unpleasant thoughts, images, emotions, or sensations, limit our ability to live a full and rich life. While we may gain some health benefits by engaging in such practices, if what moves us to practice is the desire to escape the fullness of our experience, those practices can have harmful effects. And there is another down side: According to psychologist Dr. Lance McCracken, when we engage in favorite activities as a way to avoid experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings, the activity is usually not as joyful or satisfying as it would be otherwise.