How your past shapes your present and future

Early negative emotions literally shape your brain, which can make them harder to cope with. But you can train yourself to reshape your brain, and handle even the most painful feelings.

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Dec 29, 2021 PUBLISHED
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Sometimes we don’t know how to calm down. Intense feelings—like anxiety, sadness, fear, or anger—can smother us like a heavy coat we can’t take off. 

We feel powerless and overwhelmed, and we hear a critical voice inside:

  • “Why can’t I just calm down?”

  • “I’m totally overreacting, I’m making a scene.”

  • “Why can’t I just let it go?”

This is usually when we try to make the feeling stop. We distract ourselves, scroll through social media, change the subject of a conversation abruptly—or leave it altogether—to escape feelings that won’t go away on their own.

These avoidant strategies can be effective, yes, but understanding what’s happening inside your brain at moments like these is the most effective way to cope with and move away from painful emotion.

That’s what this article is about. It’s about why we feel things so strongly that at times we struggle to return to a safe, comfortable baseline. 

We’re going to talk about how your brain is literally shaped by past experiences, and how that affects your daily life, so you can learn to pivot in these situations rather than be overwhelmed by your emotions. 

How your brain remembers

Picture a pinball machine: A metal ball zooms through a constellation of obstacles; when it hits one, it’s flung through a gauntlet of bumpers. Each bumper it collides with lights up with a cacophony of dings and bells. The ball then falls to the paddles at the bottom of the machine. The player swats the ball back up into the belly of the machine, and the dance continues. 

pinball

But there’s a trick to the pinball machine: The bumpers, when hit by the ball, become linked to each other, creating a web pattern that lights up. This way, when the ball hits its first bumper, you can see exactly where the pinball will spit out, and time your paddles accordingly. In short, the pinball machine “remembers”. 

Your brain functions just like this pinball machine, but with about 80 billion “bumpers” called neurons, and millions of “metal balls”—electrical signals—whizzing in every direction. 

To make sense of all this activity, your mind groups the signals together by remembering the routes that have been taken in the past—just like the pinball machine’s bumpers light up in anticipation of the ball’s path.

This is called “Hebb’s Axiom”: neurons that fire together wire together. This wiring together allows your brain to notice patterns that help it make sense of an otherwise chaotic world. Noticing patterns helps your mind relax a bit, knowing that next time the “pinball” (electrical signal) hits that particular bumper (neuron), it can anticipate where the ball will go next. 

Your brain is so good at this kind of anticipation that it can even light up the whole familiar path automatically, once it recognizes the initial input of that first bumper being hit.

sad woman

Emotional responses are memories

Let’s think about what this means for your emotional experience. Imagine you’re a child at the playground. You’re playing with a new friend when suddenly they push you to the ground. You burst into tears, then run to your parents for support.

But instead of comforting you, your mom seems annoyed or judgmental, saying things like “Why didn’t you stand up for yourself? Stop crying, it’s not a big deal.” So you hang your head, feeling alone and small.

Meanwhile, inside your brain, the electrical impulses created by this experience are whizzing from neuron to neuron, forming connections.

Every emotion we feel today, and the specific way it affects us, is connected to how we’ve historically managed that emotion throughout our lives.

Each facet of this apparently minor experience—the excitement of the playground, the fear and overwhelm at your friend’s actions, seeking comfort in your mother and being rebuffed, the subsequent feeling of shame—are like the bumpers of a pinball machine, and just like those bumpers, they’re linked together. When they’re activated in a certain order, they light up in that order. 

The next time you go to a playground, your brain might recognize the familiar setting, and react by lighting up the same sequence of bumpers that was activated the last time you were here. These linked neurons tell you what you can expect from your time on the playground. Your brain, always finding patterns, tells you that arriving at the playground is the beginning of a familiar story: If you’re bullied again, you won’t receive comfort from your parents, and you will be left feeling ashamed and small. 

Why go through that again? This time, you sit on the sidelines. 

How memories manifest

If you have repeated negative experiences like this, a pattern will form in your brain that makes it tough for you to manage feelings of helplessness. These kinds of experiences are common among people who experience depression. 

Every emotion we feel today, and the specific way it affects us, is connected to how we’ve historically managed that emotion throughout our lives. When we experience painful, negative emotions, like sadness or fear, our minds, like the pinball machine, anticipate the next emotions. So when something bad happens, we immediately feel as though we already know how this is going to go. 

The person who has been told to stop crying when upset throughout their life might feel the need to isolate themselves when depressed to avoid the criticism they’ve come to expect. The person who has been harshly punished for getting distressed can feel themselves brimming with rage the next time they’re hurt—their rage is the memory of what it was like to be misunderstood and uncared for. 

In each of these situations, our feelings hold the memories of how they have been handled in the past. That can include details as specific as the sensations our bodies felt, and what we had to do to get past it. 

We can form new memories around regulating and soothing our emotions, thus creating new pathways for ourselves.

Fast-forward to today. Regardless of whether you were once a child who was pushed on the playground, you have probably had an experience and an emotional response that felt out of your control. Once you face a certain type of feeling or circumstance—one that feels all-too-familiar—your brain falls back on old connections to tell you what to expect, transplanting the pain of the past into the present. 

Maybe it’s hard for you to calm down when you feel wounded, or impossible to shake off your anxiety in certain circumstances, or to alleviate your depression at certain times of the year. 

This is because your brain has literally been shaped by previous times you’ve felt this way. The paths between your neurons, forged long ago and reinforced by repeated experience, are taking the stimulus in the present and using past experience to give you a distressing message: This doesn’t end well for you.

memories

So what can we do?

Here’s the bad news: Our minds are bad at forgetting emotional memories. Once they’ve created a certain pathway, that pathway will most likely always be there.

But there’s good news, too: We can form new memories around regulating and soothing our emotions, thus creating new pathways for ourselves. This happens when we have repeated positive experiences, where our emotions are met with comfort or understanding. 

Having your feelings rejected by a caretaker early in life forms a painful pattern, but using our words to share our emotions today with someone sympathetic and receiving their care and understanding, builds a new one. 

We can learn to replace an emotional pattern like, “When I’m upset and I can’t handle it, I have no one to turn to, so when something bad happens I can expect to feel lonely and in pain,” with something like, “When I feel bad, I can be understood. I don’t have to suppress my feelings or get overwhelmed, I know it’s going to be alright, even though I’m in pain right now.”

change the narrative

Just sharing our painful memories with a trusted person can be a powerful first step to teaching the pinball machine of our mind that there’s more than one path the pinball of an experience can take along the bumpers of our neurons. 

Hebb’s axiom works here too: When we talk about a painful memory with someone and experience their empathy, our minds link these past and present experiences together. Much of the significant healing that can be experienced in therapy comes from creating these new, positive patterns.

Practicing this new way of experiencing our difficult emotions gives us a chance to forge a new path to follow when inevitably faced with them in everyday life. We give ourselves the opportunity to pivot away from familiar, painful reactions. 

We can decide which path to take. Learning to recognize and rewrite these patterns can not only move you away from discomfort, but toward greater awareness and connection. 

Article originally published Dec 29, 2021.

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