The psychological needs that we all have to survive – needs to survive the traumatic events that we experience as a child – may be different depending on our emotional reactivity to those events. We may need to react negatively to painful memories of our parents or loved ones, but those reactions need to be understood in order to help with the development of healthy psychological needs. For example, negative emotions that we may experience from the death of a loved one can cause us to cry, while positive emotions such as happiness can make us laugh. If we have difficulties sleeping after the death of someone important to us, we may find that we experience anxiety during the night. Understanding these reactions in terms of a cognitive model that is balanced and integrated within a person’s psychological makeup can provide insight into the appropriate needs to address the emotional consequences of the event.
We know that the human mind stores long-term memory (emotionally positive memories) in pathways that are activated when an event occurs that evokes a pleasant memory. An unhappy event that generates sadness, fear or anger triggers the formation of these types of emotional memories. These memories are typically short-lived and their impact is small compared to those that come with the formation of positive memories. Nevertheless, if the event was traumatic and painful, the formation and storage of these memories are much larger and their impacts can be fairly long-lasting. Developing an understanding of this principle is critical for the counseling professional who needs to help patients build and maintain healthy associations with the events that occurred as they experienced them.
Psychologists talk about the “pain principle” to explain why negative experiences are stored as unpleasant memories. According to this principle, negative events that are consistently and severely painful create a hypersensitivity to the pain that is caused by that event. This hypersensitivity to pain results in a persistent and chronic state of emotional pain that can be extremely difficult to control. That is, someone who has had a major emotional trauma that has been repeatedly and severely painful is likely to be unable to successfully change their emotional behavior even if the trauma is resolved or is forgotten. While this principle is not widely understood, it is important to note that its effect is consistent and measurable for many individuals regardless of their personal preferences.
The second psychohormonal principle that applies to the relationship between unpleasant and pleasant memories of alumni is the “pain connection.” This concept relates the intensity of a person’s emotional pain to the intensity of the memory of that event. An unfortunate event or series of events that is consistently painful is viewed by the sufferer as leading to a persistent state of emotional pain that can be difficult to control. When a person cannot control their pain and does not experience the unpleasantness primarily as a result of that event, they view the unpleasantness as a result of something that happened prior to the event. This perspective can have a profound impact on an individual’s ability to move forward and to reduce negative emotions associated with the events that caused stress or upset the patient.
The third psychological principle that applies to the relationships between unpleasant and pleasant memories of alumni is that the relation between unpleasant and pleasant experiences is cyclical. This principle states that an event that is repeatedly pleasant is perceived as being less painful than an event that is experienced once but is repeated. People continue to view the former as less painful after experiencing it a number of times than they do the latter. As such, people perceive the pleasant memory as a precursor to the unpleasant memory in order to prevent the traumatic event from reoccurring.
Finally, a fourth psychological theory relates the unpleasantness of a memory of a loved one to that person’s general sense of worth. In this model, the unpleasantness of a memory is felt by the person with lower values (such as low self-esteem or low self-confidence) to the extent that the person will be willing to discount the potential pain they would experience if they experience the event. Thus, if the person feels the event to be unpleasant even without having had the opportunity to directly observe or experience its pain, they will be willing to assign a more negative valuing to the event. As such, a person who values themselves on the basis of their ability to succeed or serve effectively will be less likely to put oneself in a situation where they would be harmed. In contrast, a person who bases their worth on other criteria such as beauty or social status will be more likely to experience painful memories and will be more willing to endure them.
In addition to these generalizations, it should be noted that these are merely the surface level effects of a person’s psychological needs. A person’s true needs may actually take many forms, depending on their cultural heritage, psychological development, personality, and other factors. For instance, while one person may find a particular event to be very painful, another person may find the event to be enjoyable. Different individuals will therefore have different needs for their psychological health.
Finally, there are some situations that do not actually require a direct interaction between a person with whom they have a relationship. For instance, a person can spend a great deal of time thinking about a person who is dead – whether they have known the person for decades or even for centuries. This can have no effect on their memory of the deceased – but if they spend a great amount of time thinking about the dead person, their personality may well take a major shift. This change can be as innocuous as an increase in mood or sleep pattern to outright personality change.