Psychoanalysis and talk therapy are effective approaches in resolving old emotional conflicts. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a different kind of therapy that seeks to break connections between memories of past events and negative emotion processing without seeking to illuminate the cause of the connections. The techniques of cognitive-behavioral therapy can also be thought of as emotional regulation. Emotional regulation is not about counting to ten when you are angry or taking a deep breath. It’s about taming our destructive unconscious thoughts and emotions.
Though we cannot access the subconscious directly, we can access it via the symptoms to which it gives rise, for example, emotional overreactions, repetitive behavioral patterns, or psychological disorders. Unconscious thoughts and emotions do not always manifest themselves as psychological disorders. For example, implicit biases against women do not typically give rise to psychological disorders. But in the presence of a trigger, they will give rise to behavior that can be recognized. Feeling the need to tell jokes about women’s gray matter or desiring to hire a person with a Y chromosome for the new chair position before looking at female job candidates are signs of an implicit bias against women. Desiring to spend more time with your guy than he does or to relentlessly scrutinize your inbox and voicemail for messages is, except perhaps in the very beginning of a relationship, a sign that things are a little off and asymmetric between you.
It’s the symptoms of our unconscious destructive emotions and thoughts that hold the key to recovery. One of the main signs that we have unresolved emotional conflicts is avoidance behavior. Someone with fear of relationships may avoid intimacy. Someone with fear of spiders may avoid the outdoor or camping. Someone who is not yet over a relationship will tend to avoid reminders of the ex partner.
The reason we avoid certain things associated with our unresolved emotional conflicts is that the things we avoid can trigger memories and the associated negative emotions. Sometimes a scent, a taste or a sound can trigger a long-gone memory. Marcel Proust captures this well in the famous Madeleine episode in his In Search of Lost Time:
No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of Madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little Madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.
We don’t know all that much about how memory functions. What we do know is that the hippocampus, the brain’s main memory center, is crucially involved in storing memories for the long term. If you look at an fMRI scan, the hippocampus is a seahorse shaped loop in the temporal lobe on the side of the head (strictly speaking, of course, there are two, one in each hemisphere). In Greek “hippo” means horse and “campos” means sea. So “hippocampus” means seahorse.
The hippocampus is, evolutionarily speaking, part of an old brain system called the limbic system. This system existed long before brains developed (neo)cortical brain regions (i.e., the brain areas that are responsible for thought and cognition).
How the memories are stored in the hippocampus (and later the cerebral cortex) is less clear. One theory has it that the hippocampus plays and replays information it receives, and that the constant replaying generates proteins that are deposited at the nerve endings (the axons) in a network of neurons.
There is also some reason to believe that dreams, which often play out recent information from the past, help us store memories. If correct, that might perhaps shed some light on the correlation between the low levels of acetylcholine noticed in Alzheimer’s disease and the high levels of acetylcholine accompanying REM sleep and dreams.
There is an exception to the general principle that information has to be replayed in order for it to get stored for the long term. A single intense emotional event, particularly one associated with fear, seems to give rise to immediate memory storage. When we recall the negative memory it often will continue to activate the brain’s fear processing center, also known as the amygdala.
This was a good thing for our ancestors who needed to associate fear with dangers in order for them to have a better chance of surviving. But when it comes to invisible fears of the kind that occur at the beginning of love relationships and during love obsessions and breakups, we would probably be better off not having quite so vivid memories of the events, memories that can continue to trigger fear processing years after the events took place.
Memories that are stored with a neural connection to networks in the amygdala trigger fear on every recall. As fear can be harmful to the body, our brains do what they can to minimize fear. Avoiding people, things or situations that trigger fear memories protects us against experiencing fear. Our avoidance behavior is thus a protective mechanism that prevents fear processing and the associated harmful stress chemicals that fear gives rise to.
Avoidance, however, does not get rid of associations between memories and negative emotions. The neural connection between the memories in the hippocampus (or later in the cerebral cortex) and the amygdala stays put. Memory recall and new memory associations are needed to sever the neural connection.