Do You Experience 'Euphoric Recall'? Here's Why It Can Be Toxic.

Therapists explain the signs of this particular thought pattern, and what to do if it's interfering with your life.
Looking back on bad times in a positive light isn't always a good thing.
Crispin la valiente via Getty Images
Looking back on bad times in a positive light isn't always a good thing.

Have you ever told your friends you wanted to text an ex, only to hear them vehemently say no? Or maybe you’re thinking fondly about a past job ― one that you actually hated. Or perhaps you decided to pursue a sobriety journey after a few rough nights out, but you find yourself unable to stop thinking about the fun you had when a cocktail was involved.

These situations illustrate what it might be like to experience “euphoric recall.”

“Euphoric recall is a psychological phenomenon where individuals remember past experiences, particularly negative ones, in a more positive light than they actually were,” said Monica Cwynar, a licensed clinical social worker with Thriveworks in Pittsburgh who specialises in anxiety, depression and coping skills. “It happens commonly with addicts, but it can happen with individuals who aren’t addicts.”

Signs of euphoric recall include idealising or exaggerating the positive and minimising the negative; experiencing intense emotions when recalling a memory; experiencing disconnection from reality, or a memory feeling too good to be true; stress responses and mood changes; and obsessively thinking about the good times rather than remembering the situation more broadly.

Besides people recovering from substance misuse, other groups that may experience these kinds of thought patterns are people recovering from eating disorders and people who have left toxic relationships. Euphoric recall doesn’t just happen after serious situations, though, and these examples only scratch the surface.

Given the popular beliefs about the power of positive thinking, you might wonder if euphoric recall is really that harmful. The truth is, it’s not all bad.

“Seeing things in a positive or optimistic way can do us a lot of good,” said Valerie Kowalski, a therapist with Gateway to Solutions. “It can shift our perspective, diminish stress and enhance our gratitude.”

However, she pointed out it can also be a defence mechanism that doesn’t truly serve us. “Feeling bad about a situation that was bad can help us remember what we did or didn’t like about what occurred,” Kowalski said. This can protect you in the future.

Remembering the bad parts of an unhealthy relationship can help you stay away from that person (and potentially have a healthier relationship in the future). Remembering how awful detoxing was can encourage you not to drink (and ideally avoid the negative health outcomes associated with alcohol). Remembering how your eating disorder ruined your relationships can encourage you to keep pushing toward recovery (and living a fuller life).

That said, let’s dive deeper. What’s the psychology behind this confusing experience? What might it look like? And what do therapists suggest if you experience it?

What Can Lead To Euphoric Recall

There are a few factors that might cause euphoric recall, according to therapists. They include:

Struggling with emotion regulation.

Let’s be real: Remembering the painful emotions that came with a tough time can be overwhelming. “It can be difficult to cope with the grief, pain, shame, or guilt related to past experiences that were bad, especially if it was a result of personal choices made,” said Amelia Kelley, a trauma-informed therapist, author, podcaster and researcher.

That’s where euphoric recall comes in — it provides relief. “By focusing on the positive aspects of a past experience, individuals may temporarily alleviate feelings of sadness, anger or regret,” Cwynar explained.

Experiencing a nostalgia bias.

Cwynar said this is when people “remember past experiences as being more positive and enjoyable than they actually were, due to the emotional significance attached to those memories.”

Further, its effects exacerbate the situation. “The same part of the brain that is stimulated during a pleasant experience is also activated when we’re remembering it,” said Leah Young, clinical manager at Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Center and Eating Recovery Center. “We can then minimise experienced consequences, exaggerate the positives and justify any associated costs.”

Having selective memory.

“Our brains are wired to remember certain events or details more vividly than others,” Cwynar said. “Negative memories can fade over time, while positive memories may be more easily recalled and reinforced, leading to a skewed perception of the past.”

Addiction tricking the brain.

The nature of addiction means your body gets to a point where it believes the substance or behaviour in question is needed for survival, Young said ― so it will try to convince you to go back to it.

For one thing, your body wants more of the neurotransmitters it released during that time. It remembers them well. “When we use, the dopamine released at the time of use is committed to memory by glutamate and, especially if it’s a memory of emotional salience, we almost ‘hyper’-memorise it,” Young explained.

Additionally, substances can change the way the hippocampus (the part of the brain associated with memory) processes material, Young said. This can mean negative memories are denied and positive aspects are exaggerated.

Talking with a mental health professional can help you work through euphoric recall.
Maskot via Getty Images
Talking with a mental health professional can help you work through euphoric recall.

How Therapists Recommend You Respond To Euphoric Recall

Euphoric recall can lure you toward dangerous waters, whether that means triggering you or keeping you from enjoying the present. When euphoric recall has got to go, therapists advise the following steps:

Practice mindfulness.

Cwynar encouraged trying to be present in the moment rather than focusing on the past. “Mindfulness can help [people] acknowledge their emotions and thoughts without getting carried away by them,” she said.

Kelley praised body and breath work. “Finding [an approach] you enjoy most and practicing it daily, even before this thinking pattern begins, helps reduce the need to engage in these addictive thinking patterns in the first place,” she said.

Set boundaries with the past.

This is another way to ground yourself. Kelley said this may look like establishing boundaries with people, places or substances that trigger euphoric recall.

Engage in self-reflection.

When you notice you’re stuck in the past, consider what might be the reasons for that (without judgment). Cwynar recommended you ask yourself why you’re idealizing the past, and how it’s affecting your life now.

“This self-reflection can help them understand their emotions and work toward better insight in themselves and the memories,” she explained.

Bring in your support system.

If you’re feeling temptation to relapse or reenter an abusive relationship, you don’t have to handle it alone. “I strongly encourage my patients to ‘tell on your brain’ — let someone trusted know that you’re having these thoughts,” Young said.

Have a specific person set ahead of time ― perhaps someone who was there when the memory was happening, if talking to them won’t trigger you further. “They can often help us correctly recall situations that we’ve been remembering through rose-colored lenses,” Young said.

Connect with people who ‘get it.’

A support group is a great avenue. “There’s nothing like a bobblehead when we’re struggling,” Young said.

In other words, talking to people who have been in similar situations can help you feel less alone. It’s also a way to get real tips and support from people who have been in your shoes.

‘Play the tape to the end.’

This is one of Young’s favourites. Basically, it means letting the entire memory play out, including the bad aspects. It brings you back to the reality of the situation.

Young shared the example of a 21st birthday celebration. “If we’re in euphoric recall, we’ll remember getting there, dancing, flirting, laughing, and stop there,” she said. “If I wait until the end of the credits, I’ll be able to recall that I also got sick in the bathroom, don’t remember a few hours, upset some of my friends who had to take care of me or whom I got into a fight with, don’t remember how I got home, etc.”

To make this process easier in the future, Kowalski said to write down the full memory so you can refer to it later.

Remind yourself that the anticipation is unrealistically positive.

Basically, don’t forget you’re experiencing euphoric recall.

Young explained the science behind this. “The dopamine released in anticipation of a reward is greater than that released when we get the reward,” she said. “It’s primarily because the brain doesn’t know the outcome, so it anticipates the most pleasurable experience it can imagine.”

Work with a therapist.

Deciphering why you feel a certain way, or deconstructing a complicated memory, can be difficult to do alone. Cwynar recommended working with a mental health professional to help you process your emotions and gain a more realistic perspective.

Remembering bad times in a positive light is certainly understandable, but it may not be in your best interest. Listen to your loved ones when they tell you not to text the ex, and trust the therapist who says that going back to the drug won’t feel as great as you’re imagining — even when it’s hard to believe them.

Help and support: