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Opinion | We Will Forget Much of the Pandemic. That’s a Good Thing.

In patients with PTSD, the area of the brain that stores fear memories is highly active, suggesting that the individual cannot properly engage the brain’s fear forgetting system and therefore cannot let go of the high anxiety associated with the memory of the traumatic event. Complex disorders should not be oversimplified, but it is possible to think about PTSD as a disorder stemming from too much memory, caused by an inability to forget a traumatic experience in a healthy way.

Turning down activity in this brain region effectively induces a healthy ability to forget feelings of fear. Drugs like MDMA do just that and are being tested as a treatment for PTSD. Some couples therapists have even used MDMA to accelerate the “forgetting and forgiving” process in their patients. From the testimonials of recreational users, quieting fear-related memories is apparently so potent in its “prosocial” effects — making people friendlier, more compassionate, even more loving — that it underscores how unchecked fear memories can make people antisocial and miserable.

Of course, we won’t — and shouldn’t — forget the pandemic. In addition to memorializing the loss of our loved ones, we should commemorate the selfless commitment of our fellow health care workers, and rewrite our government and medical manuals so that we are able to respond better and faster next time. But for many of us, particularly those on the front line, some degree of emotional forgetting will be a natural part of living in and moving forward from the pandemic.

As a society, one of the most beneficial things we can do to move forward in a healthy way will be to resume safe socializing. Several studies have shown that social isolation exacerbates the negative effects of trauma. Because this particular pandemic required us to socially isolate, we couldn’t make use of the most psychologically beneficial coping mechanism: gathering together.

One of the greatest risk factors for PTSD in soldiers is when, shortly post-trauma, they find themselves socially isolated, their minds exposed without a social fabric to protect them from the lashing loops of their fear and dread. Not every observation about the mind needs a neurological explanation, but it is nevertheless true that socializing causes our brains to secrete endogenous chemicals like oxytocin, which — similar to MDMA — induces fear forgetting. Gazing into one another’s eyes is all that is needed for oxytocin to be simultaneously secreted in the gazer and the gazed-upon, a feedback loop that induces a socially uplifting pas de deux. Preventing social isolation has become part of the standard of care for those returning from the battlefield and deemed at risk for PTSD.

We can predict that when it’s safe to do so, relaxing the recommendations for social isolation, encouraging people to get together at work, in schools and other social venues, will reduce the risk of long-lasting distress.

With luck, in the months and years ahead, the threat of the virus will abate and we will be able to let go of the fear that for many of us has been a near-constant companion over the past two years. With hope, the terrifying images of the pandemic’s ravages — the empty streets and crowded hospitals, the funeral pyres and freezer trucks — will cease to loom so large in our collective memory.

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