What is Emotional Memory and Three Ways to Manage It

Health care, while a beautiful and fulfilling career, comes with quite a bit of emotional baggage. Often, we have to deal with a patient’s emotional as well as physical pain, and when dealing with unexpected patient deaths or life-changing diagnoses, we find ourselves with some unexpected and overwhelming burdens. 

These experiences can produce what’s called emotional memory, which can affect us profoundly in the moment and in the future. Emotional memory can manifest through avoidance of the initial trauma and re-experiencing the original emotions associated with the event. These memories are triggered through cued recalls such as the anniversary of a loss, or when our senses are ignited with a specific aroma or sound, or based on a specific place.

Though emotional memory is powerful, there are three approaches that can help us manage our toughest moments. These approaches can help us reduce potentially negative consequences. Check them out below.

  1. Acknowledge emotionally challenging moments. Each of us connects to patients and their families in some way, and when we help them through difficult treatments, diagnoses, or conversations, it affects us. In a sense, we go through what our patients go through, and can experience what’s known as “secondary traumatic stress.” Even if we don’t spend time recognizing this, the effects still stick with us. If left unmanaged, these difficult experiences can impact burnout rates, depression, substance abuse, and growing rates of PTSD among health care professionals. Acknowledging distressing events assists us in understanding and healing from the ripple effect of the dark experiences inherent in this healing profession.
  2. Find a healthy way to process emotional events and lean on others for support. One of the best ways to do this is to share stories that affected us as a person, not just as a clinician. Often, we end up revealing vivid memories of certain cases that left a significant emotional scar. Sharing stories of difficult care experiences with colleagues can help to surface and process the emotions associated with those memories. Supportive conversations with others can enable us to experience the benefit of reclaiming the difficult emotion connected to an event and processing it with trusted colleagues. For examples of stories like this, check out the Real Talk Podcast which highlights the more human experiences of healthcare providers. 
  3. Remember that at the end of the day, you are a human first. Care teams carry a heavy weight; we see suffering all day, every day, and power through even when our tank is empty. Some think we are emotionally invincible superheroes, and there is this expectation of holding it all together, being strong, and not buckling under the waves of things we see and experience. We can feel pressured to ignore our emotional responses for fear that we will appear inadequate. However, being honest and vulnerable about what’s truly impacting us is essential to our durability. It’s also important to note that getting help is essential to feel that we are not alone. After all, we’re only human and we need to allow ourselves to be just that.  

Together we can make it a priority to acknowledge the influence of emotional memory in our clinical life and support each other, share our stories, and raise our hands for help if we need it. How do you handle strong emotional memories? Let us know in the comments below or on Linkedin or Twitter. 

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