Friday, December 21, 2012

Intolerance and Reprocessing Bad Memories

I think we can all agree that intolerance is getting worse in our country and perhaps is spreading like an epidemic. A recent AP poll has found that racism has actually increased in this country in the last four years since we’ve had an African-American president. The same poll found that negative attitudes towards Hispanics has increased as well. Bullying in our schools and neighborhoods is more rampant than ever. Kids who are diverse in any way – disabled, homosexual and those of a different ethnic origin – are reporting more incidents of harassment than ever. There are certainly numerous causes for this increase in intolerance towards diversity, but as a stress expert, I want to explore the role of stress and unprocessed memories in this etiology of intolerance. And, most importantly, these questions: Is there something that can be done about this growing problem? Do mental health professionals have a technology that can help?
To gain a basic understanding of what happens during stress and trauma, consider this scenario: A child is surrounded by the security of his home environment.  Suddenly, the serenity is shattered by the frightening sounds of mom and dad fighting. The child’s two heroes, the only dependable sources of security in his life, are having a knock-down-drag-out.  This scares and overwhelms the child, and his reflexive emotional reactions are fear and anxiety. His heart pounds and breathing is rapid. He wants to flee, to retreat to a safe place, but there is nowhere to hide.
Luckily, the fighting subsides and mom and dad approach their child to soothe his frazzled nerves: "It's just a little disagreement honey. Everything is okay." This nurturing is helpful, and for the moment, he can let go of the trauma.  But the brain has an important job to do: It stores this fear-provoking experience in a memory network that’s coded “dangerous altercations".
Imagine the multitude of times this danger signal becomes activated in childhood.  After years of labeling, storing and coping with stress, our brains have developed numerous networks of memories to remind, prepare and protect us from future threats.  And there are billions of brain cells devoted to this task.
As adults, relationship conflict may trigger the activation of this same neural network and avoidance/flight becomes the norm. The distinction between past and present threat is blurred. As far as our brains are concerned, we are still in danger and escape may be our only mode of survival.
            In a case of chronic conflict avoidance, a therapist who practices EMDR therapy (mentioned in an earlier blog) encourages the individual to call up and hold the threatening memory while focusing on a compelling stimulus (a finger moving rapidly in front of his\her eyes)? The dual task – paying attention and calling up a memory – is inherently difficult for the brain. And, when memory and focused attention occur together, the dual stimulation seems to weaken the negative memory. This neural pathway to therapeutic success is one of several theories that are currently being investigated to help explain the rapid success of eye movement therapy.
A dual attention task like eye movements, when used by a qualified clinician as part of a comprehensive, eight step treatment plan, speeds up the process of change.  Every facet of therapy is accelerated: insight into problems, connecting past to present, the release of powerful emotions, relaxation and behavior change.
The eye movements (and other dual attention maneuvers developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro) have a way of breaking into the neural network of the brain that holds dysfunctional memories.  Once the clinician breaks into the network, the data spring to life.  And when this "release" takes place, resolution is not far behind. According to Shapiro, the memory has been successfully reprocessed.
            In my next blog, I will discuss the potential use of EMDR therapy to tackle the growing problem of intolerance. Visit my blog,, to read my article on this fascinating procedure: Stress Relief Benefits of Reprocessing Bad Memories.

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