Reflecting or Reminiscing: How to Define Healthy Thinking in Recovery

While in recovery, our past will come up a lot, but we can look back to our past in a positive way rather than in a negative way.
When we decide to change our lives and create new ones, it doesn’t mean our past lives just fall away. That falling away happens through self-work which can take varying time and effort depending on the amount of trauma, violence, or self-harm you’ve endured. Part of the healing process is dependent upon our memory and our ability to reflect on past experiences. This reflection is an important part of recovery because it’s the part that allows us to access different types of events and process them safely, a challenge we may not have been able to do prior to treatment. But when it comes to reflecting, we must be careful we aren’t getting lost in memory traps, those that want us to believe the grass is greener on the other side of healthy.

The Difference Between Reflecting and Reminiscing

The word “reflect” has a neutral connotation which means it doesn’t give us a positive or negative feeling. Reflecting means to think back to past events and think deeply about those experiences which could result in a plethora of emotions—positive or negative. But reflection is not just letting memories run through our minds. It’s a careful process of unpacking and healing, of sifting through a time that has passed while acknowledging lessons and feelings that once were to help move us forward in the present moment. Reflection is a tool for healing.

The word reminisce has a positive connotation, for it means to indulge in past memories that are deemed enjoyable. It may feel the same as reflection, but here’s where things can get tricky. If we reminisce without thought or care, we begin to see only part of a picture, the part that brought pleasure, excitement, and fun. We also run the risk of distorting past memories to make them more palatable which, in turn, does the opposite of healing. If we are looking back to find the good, especially in some precarious situations, we run the risk of romanticizing our past experiences, even the ones that put us in rehab, the hospital, and worse. It also means we aren’t focused on finding joy in the present moment which is a big red flag. Reminiscing can lead to a false sense of understanding. 

When we think back to our past, we have to realize the power in that act. We have the power to heal and the power to harm. It’s almost as if we are gods harnessing the power of time in just one moment of life. But if we use that power to find happiness in another time, we are once again avoiding our feelings and reality.

The Power of Thought

When we are in the process of working through a treatment program or intensive therapy, pain will undoubtedly arise, and it becomes easy to make the past seem far better than it actually was to avoid discomfort in the present. We twist the narrative to remember the good times, and in turn, stifle our healing process because we want to lessen the blow of unpacking difficult experiences. If we start driving down memory lane without purpose or care, we can trigger ourselves. If we continue to do so, we run the risk of more damage or self-harming behaviors.

         A physical trigger, like the trigger on a gun, is the thing that causes the gun to fire. We can think of a psychological trigger in the same way. A mental trigger is something that releases a physical reaction in the body that can create fear, tension, or anxiety. Once the memory is released, just like the bullet fired from a gun, we cannot put it back in.

Triggers relate to trauma in the sense that our brain tries to protect us during traumatic events. In the future, when we are safe, the brain tries to process those experiences which can be seen in the form of triggers. The brain has packed away an experience for later processing, but if something triggers that event, the brain releases it back to the conscious mind.

         Triggers can cause anything from a forgotten experience to a painful physical reaction in the body. Triggers can last minutes, hours, and even days. When we are starting out on our mental health journey, we may not even realize we have triggers. All of a sudden, we become angry or fearful, and we have no idea why. But through therapy and other mental health resources, we begin to learn what sets off the figurative gun and how to safely take the bullets out of the chamber.

Staying Grounded and Mentally Focused

         We can’t forget that addiction and mental health disorders are diseases that mask our own voice and free will. We believe what the voice tells us because we believe it’s us telling it! But the reality of these diseases is trickery, and it runs so deep that they will do anything to stay alive within us.

         Memory is a way for these diseases to distort the current reality by using our pasts against us, and this can be intensely harsh if we were using substances because it means we may not have any recollection of past events. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to decide what you’re thinking about and why. They may give you more information about yourself than you think!

  •  How do you feel while you’re remembering?
  •  If it’s a good feeling, ask what makes the feeling so good?
  • Are you getting something out of this experience?
  • Are you being honest while recalling past experiences or leaving something out?
  • Are you learning/healing or are you making yourself wish for the past?
  • Are you consistently replaying one experience, or do you fantasize about many?
  • Do you feel better or worse after you think about the past?

These questions shouldn’t take the place of therapy or other types of external supports, but they can help you begin to see which type of thinking you’re enacting and if the thoughts are hurting and not healing. Acknowledgment is always the first step to change.

The Bridge NYC is a boutique luxury sober living facility for men seeking a concierge experience to balance outpatient programs, school, or work-life resulting in a sustainable, lasting recovery. Call  (646) 928 0085 today for more information about admissions or The Clean Fun Network.

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