10 Memory Tips for Handling Life’s Little Lapses.

The following is Part 1 of a previously published article that I wrote.

I see and hear more and more people criticizing themselves when they forget a name, a word, or forget what they were going to say or do. Criticism is unnecessary and counterproductive to both feeling good about yourself, and remembering your intent. I’d like to help people of all ages minimize these common mental ‘lapses in life’.

Young people have moments. They lose their train of thought, forget where they put things, or can’t remember names or common words. They walk into a room or open a cupboard and forget what they were going to do or get. Because it does not happen too often, they dismiss them.

I was 22 when I got married. I put my marriage license in a ‘safe’ place. I have never found it to this day. I never thought that I was losing my mind or that I was stupid. I was just frustrated that I could not find it when I needed it.

These moments happen more often as we age. We’ve accumulated so much information through our lifetime of experiences. When we forget, we get anxious and think we are ‘losing it’. We scare ourselves into thinking we might be going senile. We doubt our own mental functioning. And, with a focus on youth, we are afraid other people are judging our mental capabilities.

For most of my adult life I’ve put items on the stairs to take up (or down) to another level. Then, for some reason when I need to go upstairs, I grab the things on the stairs and put them away. Distracted, I forget the reason I was originally went upstairs.

How we handle these moments can determine how long they last, how often they happen and how we feel about ourselves. More importantly, we can influence whether we remember or forget.

1 Be kind to yourself. Judging and criticizing yourself for forgetting is the worst thing you can do. People are often self-effacing, making remarks such as “I’m must have Alzheimer’s”. Beating yourself up short-circuits the remembering process. It creates anxiety. It makes you feel badly about yourself. You are now focusing on forgetting instead remembering. It’s counter productive. What you need and want to do is remember.

2 Take deep breath. Anxiety is the biggest culprit when it comes to forgetting. A little anxiousness can be helpful but when anxiety gets too high it interferes with thinking. Taking a deep breath reduces your anxiety so that you are more likely to remember what you want to say or do.

3 Stop. Look. Wait. Taking a moment to pause allows the mind to remember. People are often thinking and doing several things at one time. The key is not to think while you’re waiting. If you open a cupboard and can’t remember what you wanted: Stop. Gaze at the items in the cupboard. Wait. Most of the time what you were looking for will pop back into your mind. If you are in the middle of a conversation and you lose your train of thought – Stop. Be quiet. Wait. It may take from 5-30 seconds. If no one talks for these moments you are more likely to recall what you were going to say.

4 Mentally retrace your thoughts. If you are in a conversation and forget your train of thought, take a few moments to think back to what you were saying just before you lost your train of thought. If possible, get the person or people to help you with this process. As you do that, often you will suddenly remember what you were saying. When my clients (of all ages) forget what they were going to tell me I remind them of what we were talking about just before they lost their train of thought. Most of the time this process triggers their memory.

5 Retrace your behaviors, mentally and literally. If you go to do something and then forget what you were about to do, pause and stand still. Mentally review what you were doing just before. Back up in your mind to an earlier point. Then imagine all the actions you did up until this moment. This usually works. If this still does not trigger your memory, then actually go back to an earlier point and retrace your steps. As you retrace your steps often what you were about to do will suddenly come to you.

6 Cue word. If you remember what you are going to say or do but cannot say it or do it immediately because of circumstances, conger up a cue word that will remind you. If possible – SAY IT OUT LOUD or write it down.

7 Let it come later. You can try too hard to remember. Let go. Go on to something else. Let it bubble up. The word or name will probably come to you when you are in the middle of something else.

8 Reassure. Everyone forgets. Helping others remember helps them to relax and be less anxious. Share that you frequently forget too. This is called normalizing. When people know that they are not the only ones who have this problem they feel normal. Then they relax and are more likely to remember. You will feel good about helping them. When you help others in this way you will more likely be able to reassure and be kind to yourself when you forget.

9 Be patient. When someone is talking to you and they forget a word or a name tell them to take their time. Then wait. This helps the person relax and be less anxious. They are more likely to remember because they are less likely to feel judged or criticized. They are able to focus more on remembering than worrying about what you think of them. If you are uncomfortable with the silence, your anxiety will affect them and it will be more difficult for them to recall. When you are patient with others in this way you will more likely to be patient with yourself when you forget.

10 Laugh in fun. Good-natured laughter helps people relax. There is warm reassuring laughter that stems from a kind heart and good intent. Then there is teasing that makes fun of someone else. Avoid teasing others as they more likely to take the negative side to a joke than the fun side. People who feel secure within themselves usually are able to laugh things off and not take it seriously. People who are insecure often feel mocked or put down.

You can change how you treat yourself and how you respond to others. Treat yourself well and you will feel better about yourself. You will feel less anxious. You will be happier. These lapses will be shorter, less frequent, and less threatening. Then they will remain what they should be – only minor nuisances in life.

© Bea Mackay, Ph.D. 2004