Cringe Attacks

by Claudia Cole
Reviewed by Dr Sheri Jacobson

Find yourself face-palming over an embarrassing memory that pops up in your mind out of nowhere? Even if it's one that you’ve tried to forget for years? Welcome to the world of cringe attacks.

What are Cringe Attacks?

A ‘cringe attack’ is an informal way to describe a physical reaction to an unpleasant memory, particularly something that made you feel awkward or embarrassed in the past. The memory can be from a recent event, or from something that happened many years ago.

When experiencing a cringe attack, we feel a level of discomfort in the body. This is because our memory brings back the unpleasant sensations and emotions from the original event.

While cringe attacks are relatively normal and not a recognised disorder, recalling these memories can still affect your current mood and confidence.

Why do I keep getting them?

The way our memories are formed plays a crucial part in how we remember them, and how they make us feel.

According to research, events that cause a strong emotional reaction are more memorable. This can include both positive and negative emotions, but we tend to remember more specific details from a negative event. This is why we seem to easily recall moments that made us feel embarrassed or rejected.

Question your memories

Note that despite a memory seeming very vivid, it might not be accurate. The same research found that when it comes to negative events, we usually focus on the worst parts, giving them more attention than necessary. So, rather than acknowledging a situation as a little hiccup, you end up feeling worse about it. You may even become critical and regretful about how you may have handled things.

It's of course not helpful to pretend something didn't happen if it did. But it can help lower our cringe attacks if we remind ourselves our brains have a tendency to not see a fully balanced picture.

Anxiety

Anxiety is another factor that can affect how we remember details. Studies have shown that people suffering from high levels of anxiety tend to focus heavily on the negative aspects of an event, making it easier to recall the bad details. So anxious individuals have a more challenging time remembering the better parts of the same event or situation which had a positive outcome.

Research also suggests intrusive images and memories are common among those with social anxiety, a disorder that involves an overwhelming fear of being judged in a social setting. Not only does this increase the likelihood of having frequent cringe attacks, but it also worsens any worries about embarrassing yourself in a social situation.

How do I manage them?

1. Identify your triggers.

When a cringe attack strikes, our gut reaction is to suppress the memory. This technique isn’t always helpful, and only works temporarily before the memory resurfaces.

Instead, try paying attention and see if you can identify any triggers. What in your immediate environment might have started the memory? Note that sometimes, more than one trigger could be associated with unwanted memory, such as a certain smell and also the sound of someone's voice.

Knowing your triggers gives you more information on what is really upsetting you, and can help you start to process a memory instead of constantly repressing it.

2. Focus on the context of the memory.

A 2019 study shows that rather than dwelling on the unpleasant details, recalling parts of the memory that didn’t trigger an emotional response can help you process the event better.

For example, if you were embarrassed when young as you were mocked for a certain outfit you wore to school, think instead about what the other people were doing. Thinking through the memory this way can help lower its emotional charge.

Put it into perspective

While embarrassing moments feel like a pretty big deal at the time, it’s something that everyone experiences. Making mistakes is all a part of the human experience.

It’s important to remember that our embarrassing memories don’t define us. In fact, we can learn a lesson from such experiences. Whether it was something you said or a work presentation you didn’t plan for, at least now you’re better prepared for the future.

Can therapy help?

If you’re struggling to move forward from an unpleasant event and it’s causing you to feel a great deal of shame, it’s important to seek some support.

In some cases, bad memories can even potentially lead to fears and phobias. A talk therapist can help you address these issues in a safe and non-judgmental space, teaching you practical tools to manage your thoughts and feelings towards those unpleasant memories.

Time to stop being constantly caught out by cringe attacks? Use our easy booking tool now to find your perfect therapist and learn to control your anxiety.

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