So how is it that people can put things out of their minds? Well, it seems to be surprisingly simple. If you distract yourself every time a memory comes up – after a few hundreds or thousands of times – you develop a cognitive habit. Your brain says, well I guess he doesn’t want to think about this, and so every time something reminds you of the event your brain just distracts itself before the memory ever comes up in your conscious brain. It falls into what some psychologists call the unthought known. If somebody asks you if your friend was killed by mortar fire when you were in the military you would tell them yes, however you have trained yourself over the years not to spontaneously think about the event. So when something triggers the memory, your thinking brain has built up a wall of avoidance that prevents the knowledge of why you have the urge to cover your head when a car backfires on the highway from ever coming into consciousness.
So every time that you have an emotional reaction – small, big or extreme – it is either coming from the present, from the past or some combination of the two. If it is coming from the present then it will make sense to you. If you are driving on the highway it will say: loud noise…highway…probably a car backfiring…no problem. If you are on the battlefield it will say: loud noise…combat zone…probably mortar fire…my life is in danger…emergency action. In either case your reaction makes perfect sense in the present. Emotional reactions that make sense to you have taken the high road, have engaged your thinking brain, are under your control. Reactions that don’t make sense to you aren’t coming from your thinking brain, they have taken the low road instead. These reactions are not based on logic. They are not based on thought. They come from an emotionally charged memory that you may or may not consciously recall. That memory may be from any time in your past – when you were 10 years old, 10 years ago or 10 days ago – it doesn’t matter, but it is from your past. The reaction may not make sense to you now but there is always a time and a place where the reaction made perfect sense. So instead of beating yourself up and putting yourself down for overreacting, try to figure out where it is coming from. Get rid of the cat o’ nine tails that you are flogging yourself with and replace it with your detective cap.