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.

The Safe Place in your Mind

Other cultures depend upon narratives and storytelling to emotionally connect the individual with his or her culture, traditions and victories and explanations of how the world works.

In the Western world, storytelling is used less currently because of time pressure, scheduling the day’s tasks etc. It is a valuable tool for children to have and to keep in their minds; stories about the child having achieved goals, narratives about the youngster’s strengths and the families loving relationships are vital points of reference for a youngster when they are troubled.

Repeating these stories with positive emotion reinforces their power. Repetition strengthens the link between neuronal systems that can be called upon when the child needs to feel strong.

Adults may reinforce their episodic memory systems in similar ways and, again, repetition and calling forth the positive emotional memories will give them the power to change your mood and get your thoughts on track.

You will feel hopeful and balanced and in better control. Telling yourself a story may seem infantile, but it works and there are numerous resources on line that help you to go through the steps that incorporate visual, tactile and movement components to boost the power of the memory.

The CEO of PepsiCo and the first female to head that company was born and raised in India. As a child, her mother had her write a speech at the dinner table and it was a story about what she would do if she became the prime minister or president of a company.

At the end of the meal, she would recite the speech with passion and it became embedded in her episodic memory. This storytelling became a powerful resource for her and played out throughout her life when she was faced with stressful and difficult situations.

Mary, a 38-year-old client, had a busy childhood with parents who worked until late at night. She was a sensitive, warm and loving child who adapted to her parent’s hectic scheduling and the love that they did demonstrate.

When she felt badly or lonely, she simply had to bear it until her mood gradually improved. She experienced the sudden crib death of her baby brother and, even though the family grieved together, and dried her tears, the traumatic memory lingered.

She had support but no positive foundational memory in her mind. When triggering events occur, without notice and in full force as they often do, she has no foundational, safe and comforting place in her mind in which to go.


When episodic memory, a critical part of the memory system, is firmly linked to negative emotions and thoughts, then the past, present and future becomes a stressful, threatening and depressing place.

The aim of the treatment in cases of dysfunctional fear-memory reaction is to change the valence and the intensity of the traumatic memory and to increase control of memory retrieval.

The goal of the treatment is to weaken and replace the negative emotional episodic memory with a positive or neutral emotional memory.

The effective process of transformation is called re-consolidation and CBT strategies have been used effectively.

The emotional memory is accessed and re-experienced; it is then in a labile state that is amenable to change by bringing forward the comforting, visual and sensual story, image and narrative that one has constructed for this specific use.

With practice and repetition, it can be re-consolidated as a new memory that does not produce fear reactions. It can also be reinforced with positive fantasies about the initial event, thus creating associative links to alternative effective experiences

The use it or lose it concept applies to brain function and in this case, we want to lose the connection between a negative episodic memory and a fear reaction and strengthen the link between a positive memory and a neutral or positive reaction.

Tips for Improving Memory Function

1. Write it down
2. Speak it out
3. Use music or dance when repeating the item to be remembered
4. Predict your success in remembering

Boy with cat photo available from Shutterstock

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 September 19, 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.