Be Your Own Therapist- The Aunt Nellie Syndrome

Using memories to change emotions

Have you ever felt suddenly cheerful without knowing why? Or, perhaps you have become sad, felt a cloud over you, and the feelings seemed unexplainable.

This could have happened because of what I call “The Aunt Nellie Syndrome” which has to do with your 5 senses and memory. You see, emotions can often be affected by the past when “Aunt Nellie” was around rather than just due to present occurrences. That is, that cheerfulness or that sadness may not be a result of what is happening currently but rather because of reminders of the past as experienced through your senses.

Picture passing a bakery where the aroma of warm, delicious bread reaches you. It may be what you remember from when your Aunt Nellie baked just for you — loving Aunt Nellie. You are taken back to her home in your memory — to her home, her love, her warmth.

Conversely, something hits your nostrils that is a reminder of someone who was unkind to you growing up — say Aunt Nellie wore the same perfume as the woman next to you in the elevator and this Aunt Nellie was a stone-faced disciplinarian (or worse, she abused you). You could be plunged into the depths affecting you for hours or days.

The same concept holds true for all your senses. You may feel very loving or sad whenever certain music is played (“our song”) or maybe fearful whenever you hear the sound some ambulances use that are like what the Nazis used when coming to pick people up for the concentrations camps. We have reminders intermittently due to touch (perhaps of the velvet of which our favorite dress was made at age 5), visual stimuli or pleasant (or disgusting) taste we remember. I think the reason the sight of oil and smell of fish are repugnant to me today is because of the cod liver oil I was given as a child!

Often we experience these sensual happenings at a subliminal level. That is we are unaware of the relationship between the present event and the feeling.

So how does knowing this help us? Well, we can bring subliminally-stimulated (unconscious) feelings to our conscious awareness. All we have to do is return in our imagination to the time when our mood changed unexplainably and try to pinpoint what was happening with our 5 senses at the time. It may have been a person we saw or a voice we heard that reminded us of someone who affected us in some way. After an earthquake on my Acapulco vacation the refrigerator turning on and causing the floorboards to shake created an instantaneous sense of fear in me. However, I realized the similarity to the earth shaking and was able to discontinue the fear response after a while.

Bringing the unconscious to the conscious is one of the ways a therapist works with clients. You can sometimes be your own therapist and lose feelings of nervousness, guilt, anger, sadness, etc. in this way. If you are unable to do it alone, a therapist can help you to feel better and enjoy life more.

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