Use Episodic Memory or Lose Your Emotional Balance

A mind is a terrible thing to waste and yet many people without realizing it do just that.

They allow the vitally important system of episodic memory to sink into brain oblivion and instead rely upon working memory to get them through the day.

In our culture, there is a demand for quick processing of information, rapid remembering of recent information and lightning fast decision making and our brains primarily use working memory for these tasks.

ur children watch us multi-task with the speed of super computers and they learn to use working memory systems as well but this system, although very important, is for short-term and transient information processing.

How Episodic Memory Works

The importance of episodic memory, which is defined as the collection of past personal experiences that occurred at a particular time and place, is that this memory system sets the emotional tone for many life experiences in the present and the future.

This is long term memory. We rely upon our emotionally charged memories of past situations in order to imagine the future. When a negative, traumatic emotional tone is embedded in episodic memory, it will trigger depressing, fearful emotions in current, daily experiences and will direct the individual to anticipate dire, dismal and threatening scenarios in the future.

However, the beauty of this memory system is that episodic memory can be a force for resilience or a trigger for pain and suffering. These divergent pathways depend upon if and how you use your episodic memory gifts and in doing s0 direct your own emotional path.

Episodic memory works to encode the sensations and perceptions of events into long term memory so that the whole tone of the past event can be reproduced when there is a trigger or arousal stimulus.

It’s a survival strategy; we need to call up pertinent, personal information without running to Google.

When the initial (past) situation is an emotionally positive one, the encoding of that episode can be called forth to direct our course and even more importantly, to provide a protective place where individuals can set themselves when they are troubled, stressed or need comfort.

For example, you had a wonderful day with your parents at the beach, filled with sun and love and fun and an emotionally powerful mix of action and emotion becomes a visual, textural memory that may be reconstructed when a person is again at the beach or it can be summoned if the individual “works” to keep it in place.

This work is a process of bringing forth the memory at will and is part of therapies such as visualization and meditation.

A painful memory becomes encoded in the same powerful way but with strong negative emotions of fear, depression and anger. Trauma is currently a well-researched field and it is now believed that traumatic events may be big or small and their impact depends upon the impression that they make on the individual.

Whether the event is a physical blow or a shaming, bullying experience it becomes traumatic when the victim feels threatened and helpless. The initial emotions and sensations that are involved in the traumatic event may be triggered again even when the individual is at rest, watching TV, sleeping or working.

The person has become sensitized to certain stimuli and if he or she does not have that “protective shield” of positive episodic memories at hand, the sensations cause pain and dysfunction that may include flashbacks, panic attacks and severe depressive episodes and self-harm.

The good news here is that you can strengthen and reinforce episodic memory systems for yourself, for children in your life and your clients. In the therapy situation, CBT has been found to be most effective in reconstructing episodic memories and linking scenarios with positive emotions.

Outside of the clinical domain, the use of narratives and storytelling is most beneficial for children and adults.

Use Episodic Memory or Lose Your Emotional Balance

Margaret Altman, LCSW, MSW

Margaret Altman is a crisis intervention specialist and has intervened in many explosive situations within jails, emergency rooms, suicide prevention centers and psychiatric units. She is a featured writer on the Mad in America website and has more more than 35 years of experience as an LCSW in psychiatry, corrections and private practice. Her book, "Developing Your Child’s Emotional Intelligence" is on Amazon. Margaret currently focuses on issues of minority and marginalized populations in order to give them a voice in the mental health domain.


APA Reference
Altman, M. (2015). Use Episodic Memory or Lose Your Emotional Balance. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 13, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 24 Sep 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 24 Sep 2015
Published on All rights reserved.