memory pointers

Memory Pointers: How Our Brains Trick Us Into Even More Anxiety

Originally published on July 28, 2022

Just What the Heck Are Memory Pointers?

Recently, I was on a podcast trying to explain how, when we’re anxious, we sometimes lose sight of what it is we’re worried about and, in turn, erroneously make ourselves even more fearful about it. Often, when describing this concept, I say that we “blow our fears out of proportion” and make them appear much more intimidating than they really are.

Now, I’m not saying such an explanation is totally incorrect — sometimes, we do just that. However, the more I thought about my answer, the more I realized there’s a bit more nuance to these occurrences. After all, while we certainly can — and often do — blow things out of proportion, I don’t think that’s always an accurate depiction of what’s going on beneath the surface. In this post, I’ll do my best to explain what I believe that something is via a helpful metaphor from the tech world.

Diving Deep Into Memory Pointers

Apologies upfront on this one. This post will inevitably get a bit technical. It’s just hard to avoid that kind of thing when we’re talking about computers. That said, I’ll try to keep things as simple and relatable as possible. That way, the signal won’t get lost in the noise here.

To kick things off, I want you to think of your favorite mobile app. It could be Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, or something else entirely. No matter the choice, we know that each app runs via computer code that directs the phone on which it lives to carry out various instructions. Such orders range from the very basic (like setting the color of a button) to more complicated ordeals, such as discovering and connecting to nearby Bluetooth devices.

But we need not concern ourselves with the specifics of those tasks. The critical initial concept here, for our purposes, is something else altogether; it’s the fact that the code powering these apps doesn’t and can’t exist without some piece of hardware — i.e., the phone itself. Without a hard drive to live on, apps would never run. And without computer memory, the various UI components you’d normally see on your phone’s screen when running said apps would fail to materialize.

Now, this is where things get interesting. Namely, when the concept of memory comes into play. Though most modern software languages make it easy for developers to read from and write to a phone or computer’s memory capacity, actually doing that reading and writing is rather complicated. After all, would any of us know how to take megabytes of data (pictures, text, images, and the like) and store them on a physical computer chip like the one seen in the cover image of this post? I’d imagine not. We can thank the hardware gods for helping us avoid such a monumental task.

But, for a minute, let’s say we wanted to know more about that memory management process. If we looked into it, we’d find that, when it comes to taking virtual objects and reading them from or writing them into memory, computers use an address-based system. You can think of it like this: it’s almost as if memory chips have x number of storage boxes, all with an address between 1 and x.

Under the hood, computer programs “point” at these storage boxes and keep references to them so they can later retrieve the items they placed in such locations. For example, an app (or the operating system it runs on) may say: take this blurb of text and stick it in storage box 68. Then, that app would hold on to that number and pull out the contents of said “storage box” the next time it wants to retrieve that same text blurb.

What’s funny and a bit confusing about this process is that it’s reference-based, meaning that, for the most part, software programs only concern themselves with the number of the storage box in question — not what’s inside. And while that helps simplify matters on one end (we no longer need to remember that long blurb of text), it can complicate things if the contents in said box somehow change.

What Do Anxiety and Memory Pointers Have in Common?

Okay, so we’ve got the concept of memory pointers down cold. But we haven’t yet connected them back to anxiety at large and how “blowing our fears out of proportion” isn’t always the right way to describe the phenomenon of our worries expanding past their original form. Don’t worry, though — that’s where we’re heading now, with the help of a personal story.

A few weeks ago, I made plans to go on a date with someone I was romantically interested in. If you’ve read my first book before, you’ll know I sometimes struggle with these sorts of events, especially when they’re far off in the future.

Well, this one was about a week away, which meant I had what felt like an endless amount of time to stew over how the date would go. Though I’ve certainly come a long way since I wrote that first book and don’t get nearly as anxious as I used to before dates (let alone, in general), no one’s perfect, and I’m no exception. Hence, my pre-rendezvous nerves.

One of the things I struggle with most in these situations is the fact that, in my teenage years, I had a couple of panic attacks while on dates, and those scary memories have sneakily stuck with me since. Yes, somewhere in the back of my mind, they’re always lurking, eager to remind me that I could freak out on an upcoming rendezvous and torpedo both the event itself and the prospects of a relationship with the person on it.

Though this process can be super frustrating at times, I have to admit that I also find it a bit fascinating. I mean, here I am, fourteen years later, waiting to go on a totally different kind of date, and those scary past experiences are still hanging around in my mind. That’s so wild to me.

But it’s also not like those memories pop up the second I put something on the calendar. Instead, my pre-date mindset often morphs from moderate optimism over what I’m about to do to slight unease and, finally, to fear and frustration. If I’m being honest, I think I have myself to thank for this most of the time; if I really committed to staying out of my head, I wouldn’t walk that winding road down toward trepidation as often as I do.

That fact aside, however, it’s this progression that becomes the basis of this post — a real-life lesson in memory pointing, if you will. Specifically, I start by holding a pointer in my mind to the date itself. Not necessarily the specifics of what will happen on it (after all, how could I possibly know what such things are in advance?) — just the high-level task. Then, slowly and in an almost sinister fashion, the contents of that “storage box” change as my body prepares for an upcoming, possible fight-or-flight scenario.

My mind keeps pointing at the date itself, but now, it looks different. That’s because what’s currently “stored” at that same “address” is something that causes me much more fear than the average date. For me, that something could be my embarrassing memories of failed rendezvous from long ago or other long-lead-time situations where I threw myself into similar anxious funks.

The reason this sort of thing is so problematic is that it’s a cheap trick our brains play on us — one that convinces us that whatever it is we’re approaching is actually as daunting as the new contents of the storage box to which our minds are pointing. And, yes, some things we face truly are that scary, but let’s ignore such examples for now — they’re not quite what we’re talking about here.

What Can We Learn From This Phenomenon?

Okay, so I think we’re finally all on the same page: anxiety and the way computers manage their memory work in similar fashions. Sweet conclusion, I know. But why should we care about it? And what can we do with it? As you may already know, I’m all about practical, helpful insights, so I’m just as eager to answer these questions as you are.

Accordingly, my main answer is that this conclusion matters because it allows us to see past our minds’ tricks. It gives us the ability to reassure ourselves, in frightening situations, that our fear isn’t always as it appears. And that reassurance helps us mitigate our anxiety in real time.

This is the same sort of practice I tried to apply in anticipation of my date a few weeks ago. And while things are rarely as easy in reality as they are in theory, I did my best to come back to this conclusion and remind myself that the fear I was feeling was relatively unfounded and unrelated to the task at hand. It was the product of a second-rate ruse my brain was trying to play on me because it was uncertain as to what would happen in the near future.

When we don’t make these distinctions, our distorted memory pointing continues, which magnifies the unwanted feelings we’re experiencing. Sometimes, so much so that we completely lose sight of what lies before us. But when we instead come back to this memory-pointer-style conclusion, we allow ourselves to become grounded once more. We return to reality and the present moment and change the contents of the storage box to which our minds are referring. And that not only helps us breathe a sigh of relief — it also sets us up to handle whatever’s on the horizon with a bit more poise and clarity.

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**Above image designed and owned by Brian Sachetta ©2022

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