First-Time Emotional Experiences: Why They Are So Difficult to Clear
Have you ever experienced a traumatic or emotionally charged event that has lingered with you for days, months, or even years? Perhaps it was a breakup, a death in the family, or a particularly traumatic moment. For many people, these types of experiences can be incredibly difficult to shake and can continue to impact their daily lives long after the event has passed. But why is this the case?
The scientific community has spent decades studying the way that emotions are processed in the brain and how they impact our lives. Here are a few key findings that help to explain why first-time emotional experiences can be so difficult to clear:
- Emotions are processed in different parts of the brain.
When we experience emotions, they are processed in several different parts of the brain, including the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala, in particular, is responsible for our emotional responses to stimuli, including fear and anxiety. When we experience a traumatic or emotionally charged event, the amygdala sends signals to the rest of the brain to prepare for a “fight or flight” response, even if there is no immediate danger present. This response can create powerful memories that are difficult to erase, leading to long-term emotional distress.
- Emotions can become ingrained in our memories.
Studies have shown that emotionally charged experiences are often more memorable than neutral experiences. This is because the amygdala activates the hippocampus, which is responsible for creating and storing memories. When we experience a traumatic or emotionally charged event, our brain is working overtime to store the experience in our memory, making it more difficult to forget.
- Negative emotions can interfere with our ability to think rationally.
Negative emotions, such as fear, anxiety, and depression, can interfere with our ability to think rationally. This can make it difficult for us to process and understand our emotions, making it even more challenging to move on from a traumatic experience.
- Trauma can cause lasting changes to the brain.
In some cases, traumatic experiences can cause lasting changes in the brain. For example, studies have shown that exposure to trauma can lead to an increase in the production of cortisol, a stress hormone, which can lead to long-term changes in the brain. These changes can make it difficult to shake the feelings of fear and anxiety associated with a traumatic experience.
In conclusion, first-time emotional experiences can be incredibly difficult to clear because they are processed in different parts of the brain, become ingrained in our memories, interfere with our ability to think rationally, and can cause lasting changes to the brain. However, it is important to remember that these experiences do not have to define us. With the right support, it is possible to work through these experiences and find ways to heal.
What about the Split-Second Unlearning Model?
The information that you have read above aims to fit in with the traditional brain-based models of memory and trauma, but there is a better way. Split-second Unlearning (SSU) teaches us that first-time emotional experiences are stored in the mind’s eye as Emotional Memory Images (EMIs).
After a breakup, you may very well be hurt and emotionally overwhelmed, and your mind will create an EMI of the ending of your relationship. This “ending” will contain all of the negative things that were said and done at this point in time. Even if you’ve had 10 years full of great times, your mind will close off access, only giving you the pain to hold onto. From this moment on whenever you look at another person who is open and hoping for a relationship with you, the EMI will appear and with it a large growl from your amygdala. You will be able to give the cold shoulder effortlessly to any who dares to approach you. This is a really cool protection mechanism, but the downside is that you end up alone and lonely.
What about a Rebound Date?
The main challenge with a “rebound” relationship is that you are settling for second best. I’ve worked with many clients over the years who are married with children and have all of the trappings of a good relationship, but they aren’t happy!
After their breakup, they decided that they would never fall in love like that again, so they “settle” for the next person who comes along. Yes, you read that correctly they decide with their brain that this person will do. Please note the heart has no say in the decision-making process; this is purely practical. Many people can spend years bouncing from one short relationship to another as the rebound process continues to ensure that you hold back from giving your all. If both of you are on the rebound then that can leave a very large nothing between you, which for some is actually very comfortable, whilst others use it as an excuse to part.
The Loveless Relationship
What if you just need to be with some “body”? If this is you then you definitely have an EMI running and the fear of being on your own scares you into having relationships with all kinds of people. As Freddie Mercury and Queen put it
Ooh, somebody (Somebody)
Can anybody find me
Somebody to love?”
There are many couples who live their lives going through the motions and for these sorry souls, the EMIs weigh heavy. Imagine being the child raised in this relationship, your parents may say they love you, but how do they show it? Any opportunity to be out of the house is seized upon by them so that they don’t have to spend time alone together. Perhaps, they have addictions, depression or a chronic dis-ease all of which will keep them going through the motions of never experiencing the real emotion of love and passion ever again.
- LeDoux, J. (2015). Synaptic self: How our brains become who we are. Penguin.
- Phelps, E. A. (2006). Emotion and cognition: Insights from studies of the human amygdala. Annual review of psychology, 57(1), 27-53.
- Bremner, J. D. (2002). Does stress damage the brain? Biol Psychiatry, 51(1), 797–805.
- Davis, M., & Whalen, P. J. (2001). The amygdala: vigilance and emotion. Molecular psychiatry, 6(1), 13-34.
- Hudson, M., & Johnson, M. I. (2021). Split-Second Unlearning: Developing a Theory of Psychophysiological Dis-ease. Frontiers in Psychology, 12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.716535
- Hudson, M., & Johnson, M. I. (2022). Definition and attributes of the emotional memory images underlying psychophysiological dis-ease. Frontiers in Psychology, 13. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.947952