Memories can evoke powerful emotions—from happy to horrifying—and they can alter one’s perceptions about “the way things are.” Memories are triggered by a host of factors such as scents, sights, sounds, and situations. As a person with pain, I’ve learned to harness the healing power of pleasant memories—particularly, childhood memories from the time before I became an adolescent and my pain began. Recollections of things that brought me joy or made me feel loved actually help me feel better, both physically and emotionally. Here are three examples:
Redwoods and the Fairy Ring: I’m fortunate to have a beautiful stand of redwoods behind my house. On days when I don’t feel well, I go back to these trees and take in how I feel as my steps disrupt the redwood duff that carpets the ground beneath the tree. I breathe in the earthy fragrance and notice the warm brown color and texture of the bark, and the way it looks soft as laundry-worn cotton. I observe the colors that surround me—from the different shades of the green that vary from a dark hunter green of the older growth to the kelly green of the new growth. And poof! I’m transported back in time to summer camp. There I am with a group of other campers in a circular clearing in the redwood forest. I’m feeling safe, happy, and connected to those around me. Then, our counselor explains that the circle we’re standing in is called a “fairy ring.” She tells us that when the parent tree dies, a new generation of trees rise creating a circle of trees. This magical memory rarely fails to bring me joy and take my mind off of my pain.
Comfort Songs: I’ve written before about how much I enjoy music and the various emotions that come up with certain songs. Comfort songs for me are those I remember listening to with my parents as a child. It’s an eclectic mix that includes Frank Sinatra’s, “Fly Me To The Moon,” The Beatles’, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” Diana Krall’s, “Peel Me A Grape, Dionne Warwick’s, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” and John Denver’s, “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Hearing even a few notes of these songs trigger a flood of recollections of being with family and feeling safe and cared for. For example, when I hear The Moody Blues’ “Isn’t Life Strange” I’m back in our living room. My dad is wiggling his fingers during the flute solos. And these feelings of being part of a happy family take my mind off of my pain.
Comfort Food: Food always triggers powerful memories for me. The combination of flavor, scent, and appearance can take me back in time. Something as simple as eating plain crackers always reminds me of being cared for as a very small child by a parent, grandparent, or some other relative. In my mind, I take a bite of a plain cracker and I’m a little girl in bed with a cold. I see those crackers on the plate beside the chicken soup and feel loved. Jellied fruit slices also trigger happy childhood memories. My father and my maternal grandmother both enjoyed them. Dad’s favorite flavor was grapefruit, while Grandma liked the orange ones. When I see jellied fruit slices I, once again, see myself as a little girl. I see the joy on their faces as I hand them packets of their favorite flavors. I’m so happy that I have pleased them. These warm feelings wash away my pain for the moment.
What Research is Showing: Although I know, from experience, that evoking pleasant, nostalgic memories of “happy” times can help change my perception of pain and make me feel better, I’ve been doing some reading to find out what researchers (and the popular media) are saying about this and, perhaps, get some tips on how to hone my memory/nostalgia skills and build up my memory bank. Below are some articles I’ve found on the subject.
- What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows, NY Times
- Study: Nostalgia Makes Us Warm, and Cold Makes Us Nostalgic, The Atlantic
- What Triggers Spontaneous Memories of Emotional Events?, Cognitive NeuroScience Society
- The New Power of Memory: Sharp Recall Skills Prove Key to Future Success; Some Excel at ‘Mental Time Travel’, The Wall Street Journal
- Look back in joy: the power of nostalgia, The Guardian
- The Power of Nostalgia, Oprah
- Nostalgia: a Neuropsychiatric Understanding, Association for Consumer Research
We’d like to hear from you. Do you use memories to bring back good feelings and emotions? Have they helped to relieve your pain? Please share your memories in the Discussion Forums (under Wellness Issues).
The playlist for this blog is:
- Fly Me To The Moon, Frank Sinatra
- I Wanna Hold Your Hand, The Beatles
- Peel Me A Grape, Diana Krall
- Do You Know the Way to San Jose, Dionne Warwick
- Leaving on a Jet Plane, John Denver
- Isn’t Life Strange, Moody Blue