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Stress Awareness Month - Insight #4: Under the Surface

Something we are rarely aware of is how much of our stress is rising not from present circumstances but from earlier experiences, memories and baggage that we are not even conscious of. Recent neuropsychological research has revealed that our memory isn’t quite everything that it seems, and that when we are most affected by it we might not realize we are remembering something at all.

Basically, there are two kinds of memory. The first is probably what you are thinking of when you think of “memories.” Those we know, can remember, or, even when we can’t remember exactly where we experienced them, we still know they happened in the past… these are explicit memories. Explicit memories are the episodic ones – we can recall them, the little stories or episodes, even flashes or impressions sometimes, and more more “memorable” ones like a first kiss or bad breakup or where we were when the Challenger shuttle exploded. Even when we can’t remember exactly when or where or particularly “if” we had them (like knowing 2+2=4), we still understand them to have taken place in the past.

Sometimes all we have is a small portion of an experience – a flash, an image, an impression, a word. Sometimes we remember more. Sometimes memories fade in part or in whole. Rarely, we remember every aspect of an experience: how it felt and looked and smelled, who was there, the weather….

Most of the time, though, if we remember anything at all from our past (even yesterday!), it is only the smallest portion of the whole experience. At least, explicitly.

At the same time, our subconscious mind is recording a vast amount of information, much of which comes to us out of conscious awareness. This is often the most important information: how we feel, are we safe, who we can trust, what to “instinctively” do, how best (or not) to respond to these kinds of situations or people, and so on. It is like the proverbial iceberg, with most of the mass being invisible below the water line.

All of this information we remember “implicitly” or not-consciously. It can be 90-95% of an experience!

Sometimes implicit memories can be tied to an explicit memory – I remember the feelings, vision, physical sensations, and sounds the moment my wife and I got engaged, and when I saw my first child look at me after she was just born, for instance. I can remember being frustrated as a child waiting in line with my family for a ride at Disneyland. I can remember so much about the early morning on a beach our family used to vacation at – at least the parts that were interesting to a little kid.

But implicit memories don’t need to be tied to an explicit memory. They can exist on their own. (As an aside, I wonder if language might be an example of this – learned mostly implicitly and certainly accessed that way the vast majority of the time.)

The most important quality of implicit memories for our purposes now, is that they do not have a “time stamp,” they are not experienced as “having happened in the past.” So, when you “remember” an implicit memory, you do not think of it as from the past – you experience it in the present as what is happening right now. A better way to describe is is “experiencing” an implicit memory, because it doesn’t feel like “remembering” or “a memory.”

So, if as a result of something (a smell, a passing thought, a particular sound, or a sight like the seemingly random shape and color of a curling lock of hair… or something even more vague), we experience an implicit memory and are flooded with a feeling (sadness, grief, confusion, anger, frustration, jealousy… whatever), our conscious mind wants to know “why” we are experiencing this, and looks around at what is happening as “the cause” of the feeling: my wife said this, my co-worker just did this, my kid always acts this way!

Now, those things might be genuinely irritating. But they were not as bad as they “made” us feel. In truth, they didn’t make us feel that way. (Those things could actually be entirely innocuous, even – just latched onto by our conscious mind in its attempt to understand what is happening. But crucially, our conscious mind isn’t aware of all the facts.) Simply because those things were in proximity to our experiencing an implicit memory we start to associate those things with what we are experiencing implicitly.

I hope it is becoming clear how this is related to stress awareness. Sometimes, we can experience whole boatloads of emotion or reaction or impulse or direction or thoughts, and not even consciously know where they came from. However, we experience them and react to them in the present, not realizing they are “memories” at all.

Not always, but a good deal of the time, our experience of stress in any given moment is rooted in our implicit memory. Perhaps our memory is telling us good information: to be cautious, to stand up for ourselves or have good boundaries, to say “no” or ask for clarification, or not take on responsibility for other people’s emotions or reactions. Sometimes our memories are not providing us helpful perspective on what is happening right now: our spouse needs us to understand their expectations for how the morning will be packing the kids for our trip, this coworker is venting their frustrations (which might actually be more about their spouse than their supervisor) and we don’t need to take it personally, we need to be more efficient or focused because the workload is temporarily ramping up and we can do it, we should be careful and intent when we jump off the high-dive so the water doesn’t sting, and so on.

The point is that our stress response is intimately informed by factors we may not be consciously aware of. We may think we are aware of the cause: when my wife uses that tone… it makes me so mad. Our feelings may be telling us that something genuinely needs to be addressed. But the “so mad” part might actually be about all the earlier times in our life we felt misunderstood, blamed, shamed, responsible, inferior, powerless, punished, or whatever. All of those experiences are brought up and flood us – mind and body – so we are not able to just hear our partner. (They may be experiencing their own implicit memories, too, at that moment, and so may not be accurately interpreting the present moment either. Two icebergs violently colliding under the surface, when their visible tips seem so clear.)

How do we get around this? It isn’t easy.

The only way I know in the moment is to do a reality check. When stress (or any emotion) starts to rise, take a moment (before it floods or gets out of hand) to take an objective view of the situation. Perhaps some degree of response is appropriate. Perhaps more. Or, maybe that whole little sh!t-storm was actually their thing and we don’t need to take it on at all. Whatever. The point is to take a moment to look at the present moment as the present moment alone, and more reasonably consider the wise response.

If you find this happening a lot, some deeper work might be called for, to help unpack and heal whatever underlying/implicit memories or programs are affecting you. (Consider depth-oriented, psychodynamic hypnotherapy as an option for this kind of work.)

Like I said, it isn’t easy. One of the reasons for implicit memory is that it short-circuits the decision-making process and guides us by feeling and “instinct.” As cave-people, that might have been the edge that kept us going. In the modern world, it is often what holds us back. But… I guess that is what maturing is about: facing the hard work it takes to simply be in our own control.


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