September 6, 2023

Anchoring – “anchored” memories

Anchoring – why our minds and emotions are torn in all directions by leaps and bounds within seconds. Happy one moment, brooding the next. The next moment sad. As if the mind is a ball in a pinball game, and there it keeps being shot rapidly in different directions.


The anchor technique is a term I first encountered during my NLP training.
It is also used in other fields such as psychology. Anchoring means linking a specific response to a specific trigger. The idea is that a particular feeling, memory, or behavior can be “anchored” so that it can be triggered in the future by a specific stimulus.

I find the subject fascinating, especially through mindfulness meditation. When you notice which impulses steer your mind in which directions and make it think.

Strictly speaking, every memory is actually linked / anchored to something in one way or another. And that most of them “anchor” without us being aware of it.

Yes, you can also consciously set and change anchors – but most memories with stronger emotions anchor themselves unconsciously. The stronger the emotion (pleasure or pain) about an event, the faster the anchor sets itself. It links to many elements given in the corresponding situation. It can be a song playing at that moment, a smell or taste. Or something we see or a touch on a very specific part of the body.

Strong anchors can cause a massive emotional turnaround.

A few days ago, a friend played “The house of the rising sun” on his guitar. And suddenly I found myself in the middle of my mother’s funeral again. Back in the emotions I felt at that moment. Back in pain and loss. Even on a physical level, I felt like I was just there again on the inside. My friend did not know that this song had been played there. The song was played there as one of three songs. The strong emotional situation has anchored itself with the song.

What can be all anchors?

Anchors can be diverse and range from

  • visual stimuli (what we see – e.g. colors, objects, a certain gesture, a certain posture)
  • auditory stimuli (what we hear, e.g. sounds, music, words, a certain pitch, a certain tone of voice)
  • kinesthetic stimuli (e.g. touch, temperature, texture of a surface we touch)
  • to olfactory and gustatory stimuli (e.g. smells, tastes, a particular food)
  • Thoughts, feelings and sensations

Basically, anything that appeals to the senses can serve as an anchor.

Anchors can also occur as a result of different parallel stimuli, which only develop their effect in combination.

How do anchors work in our minds?

Anchors work through association and conditioning. They create a link between one or more combined external stimuli (e.g., a smell, a sound, a gesture) and an internal state (e.g., a feeling, an emotion). Once this connection is made, the external stimulus can automatically trigger the internal state.

Physical reactions through anchors

Anchors can elicit a variety of physical responses, depending on the linked emotional or mental state. For example, an anchor associated with relaxation can lower heart rate or reduce muscle tension. On the other hand, an anchor associated with stress or anxiety can have the opposite effect: increased heart rate, sweating or trembling.

Neurochemical processes

On a neurochemical level, anchors can influence the release of certain neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin or adrenaline. These neurotransmitters play an important role in the regulation of emotions and physiological states.

Hormonal changes

Some anchors can even trigger hormonal reactions. For example, an anchor associated with a stressful situation could increase the release of stress hormones such as cortisol.

Cortisol is a stress hormone that puts your body in a “fight or flight” mood. It makes you alert and responsive, but if levels are consistently high, it can lead to health problems such as sleep disturbances, weight gain, and elevated blood pressure.

Immune system and health

Anchors can influence the immune system by triggering neuochemical processes or hormonal changes. Positive anchors associated with a sense of well-being and relaxation help to lower cortisol levels, allowing the immune system to function normally again. The neurochemical processes can additionally strengthen the immune response in the case of positive anchors.

Negative anchors, on the other hand, can have the opposite effect. Because when cortisol levels rise for the “fight or flight” mode, the body reduces digestion, throttles the immune system and likewise other non “survival critical” systems like the reproductive systems to mobilize all energy to flee or fight the threat as quickly as possible.

Automatic reflexes

In some cases, anchors can even trigger automatic reflexes, such as salivating at the thought of food or wincing at a sudden loud noise.

All in all, anchors have the ability to trigger a wide range of physical responses, from subtle changes in body language to significant physiological and neurochemical changes. They are evidence of the complex interaction between mind and body.

Similarities between anchor and Pavlovian reflex

Both concepts – anchoring in NLP and Pavlovian reflex in classical conditioning – are based on the idea of association. In both, one or more stimuli that are neutral in themselves (e.g., a sound, a gesture) are linked to an unconditioned response (e.g., salivation, emotional feeling) so that the originally neutral stimulus can eventually elicit the response on its own.

In my eyes, the boundaries between the two terms are fluid.

Both can be set consciously and both can be set unconsciously.

The Pavlovian reflex shows us that our brain can set ‘anchors’ all by itself. This happens when certain signals or stimuli occur repeatedly along with a particular experience. These signals can even happen well in advance of the actual ‘big event’ and still affect how we feel or react to it.

Advertising also uses this effect very intensively. More about this later in the examples.

Example: The dog, the bell and the food

In Ivan Pavlov’s classic experiment, a dog was trained to associate the ringing of a bell with the receipt of food. Initially, the bell had no special meaning for the dog. However, once the bell sounded several times always immediately before feeding, the dog soon began to show a conditioned response.

With each repetition of bell ringing followed by feeding, the linkage in the dog’s brain strengthened. I imagine that the unconscious and subconscious process can be almost something like this: “I got food…. and I heard a bell before – is it related?”. After a certain number of repetitions, the bell alone became sufficient to elicit a response in the dog. “Oh, I hear the bell. I only ever heard the bell when there was food”. The sound of the bell triggered salivation and anticipation of the food.

In the end, the originally neutral stimulus of the bell, through repeated association with the food, had acquired the ability to elicit a strong emotional and physiological response in the dog. The bell became a trigger for anticipation of the food and was able to elicit a similar response as the food itself.

This example illustrates the basic mechanics of association and conditioning found in both Pavlovian reflex theory and the concept of anchoring. It shows how an initially neutral stimulus acquires the power to independently trigger a response through repeated association with a positive (or negative) event.

How are anchors triggered?

Anchors are triggered by repetition and association. For example, a song you heard during a happy moment in your life may evoke that feeling of happiness later. Or a certain scent, perfume, or smell can evoke memories of a particular person or place.

Examples of anchors and how they work

Time shifted anchor

When I arrive in America and, after border control, finally step through the airport’s automatic doors outside into the warm, humid air with its very own smell, the combination of many stimuli triggers a very intense anchor. The journey is over. I have “arrived”.
My entire system (my entire body) calms down abruptly – it’s like all stress falls off my shoulders. I feel like I am “at home”. I close my eyes, relax – in the middle of the automatic door – okay, guilty 😅
It is the multitude of wonderful and positive memories I have made in my life during my time in America. For many years I visited my aunt in Florida every year with my grandparents. Played outside a lot, met many wonderful and warm people. Never had a single negative experience in the US. Since I was six years old I went out alone and was sometimes for hours alone on tour. When I was 14, I flew alone from Miami to Philadelphia to visit my cousin and his son.
Or the tour through America to Canada, and the “adventure” to experience the “Great Blackout of America” and to be in the middle of it – to be handed candles in the hotel, so that we had at least some light in the room …

Similar to the Pavlovian reflex described above, the moment I step through the airport doors and the stress of travel is over has become over the years the anticipation of what is to come. Looking forward to a wonderful time. The feeling of freedom and adventure.
The temperature, the humidity, how the air with the very specific smell and air can be breathed, how it feels on the skin.

This example illustrates very well that even stimuli that are further apart in time can still become anchors.

Contextual anchors

Some anchors also only work at certain moments. Thus, the logo of the well-known burger chain or the well-known chicken or sandwich store is of little interest to us as long as we are full. What’s exciting, though, is that just seeing the logo can make us suddenly realize that we’re hungry. And depending on how hungry we feel, the memories and sensations anchored with the respective logo then determine which of these restaurants we visit, if any.

Anchors can flush old, long unthought memories back to the surface

I recently drove through a city I’ve rarely been to. At a traffic light, I was suddenly standing next to a store. Above it was emblazoned a sign with a name. I hadn’t expected it, and all of a sudden memories came flooding back to things from 10 years ago. One person. Things I have experienced with the person. Conversations we had. Good and bad feelings. They came with such a concentrated charge that I still pondered for almost 30-60 minutes about something that has long ceased to matter and no longer has any significance.

Anchors do not always have to be associated with strong emotional memories

Four weeks ago, friends told me they were going camping. I remembered that they hadn’t been camping since the last camping trip we had taken together. Just the brief impulse of “We’re going camping with the tent” immediately brought up the memory that I had noticed a strut was broken when I was taking down the tent a year earlier. At the time, I had pointed this out to my friends, but it had been forgotten by them. So I reminded them during our conversation. The anchor to this little memory was actually just the tent.

Anchors do not have to be exactly identical

Like the example with America – it doesn’t smell the same at every airport when I step through the doors. The temperature and humidity are not identical everywhere.
Maybe you have experienced that you hear a noise on another car and it reminds you that you should change the tires on your car, which you have wanted to do for a long time.
Or a smell that does not exactly correspond to your favorite food, but is close enough to it so that your mouth waters and you want to cook your favorite food again immediately.

How anchors that trigger trauma lead to projection and distorted perceptions

Have you ever experienced a situation with your partner where you, he or she said something in a certain way, with a certain choice of words or tone or gesture, and it set you or him or her off like that? Where you feel “Hey, I’m not your dad/mom” yet the person hears everything said as an attack from the moment of the trigger?

Directing moods with music or movies

Many people I know already do this quite intuitively. They sometimes have playlists for specific emotional states they want to achieve, like the “Good Mood” playlist.
The moment we put music on a playlist because it “fits”, we also anchor the feeling of good mood with the corresponding song.

Advertising – and anchoring via desires

The advertisement with the Marlboro cowboy is probably one of the most impressive and cautionary examples of manipulation in my opinion. Feelings of longing are addressed (adventure and freedom represented by the cowboy that many can relate to through childhood fantasies and dreams). Through mirror neurons we feel the freedom of the cowboy and our longing is awakened. We want to be like the cowboy. And even if we’re not a cowboy, we can at least light our cigarette in miniature and soak in the feeling for a moment. The whole thing takes place so subtly and subconsciously that we usually don’t even notice it.

Anchoring through imitation – e.g. watching movies or through our environment.

When we repeatedly see in movies where, for example, the cigarette is lit when the character is in stress and it visibly relaxes him, the cigarette anchors in our mind as a possible “solution way” to relax.
This is not only true for cigarettes. We don’t have to experience every situation ourselves. Through empathy and mirror neurons, we sense and feel what the people we focus on sense and feel.
Even if that person is only on screen and we “‘sympathize’ with the main character.”
And everything we observe in our environment with repetition is also anchored in this way, even if we have not experienced it in our own body until then. That’s part of the reason why group dynamics often end up with the majority either smoking or not smoking. (Peer pressure is another issue that comes into play above a certain threshold).

Anchoring beliefs

Quite perversely, I find that beliefs can be anchored and through our Selective Perception the anchor as well as the belief are reinforced as long as we are not aware of it.

For example, one case might be the belief, “All people are unreliable.”
Every time someone in that person’s life is unreliable and that behavior triggers a specific emotional anchor (e.g., feeling disappointed), the belief set is reinforced. Through selective perception, it is then mainly the cases in which people are unreliable that are noticed, while examples to the contrary are ignored.
The anchor is then also usually set on potential indicators that had repeatedly occurred in the run-up to a situation perceived as “unreliable”.

The combination of anchors and selective perception reinforces and cements the respective belief set as long as the person is not aware of it and actively steers against it.

Anchor chains

Stimulus leads to reaction… Reaction is at the same time stimulus and leads to the next reaction… leads to reaction…

Contrary to popular belief, I am convinced that even thoughts, feelings and sensations, can in turn be “anchors” and form an “anchor chain”.

If I am sad, it is possible that I have linked the feeling of being sad with eating ice cream as the next “logical” step. Initially, perhaps because ice cream is anchored with a positive feeling. But as time goes on, I don’t eat the ice cream consciously or because it makes me feel good. But as a result of my frustration. Frustration eating, so to speak.

The good thing is – I can break the chain at any link, which makes the chain lighter.
Especially if you have a lot of negative anchors, it can make sense to “break” only parts of the chain.

How can we set anchors?

Even though we unconsciously anchor everything we experience every day in one way or another, anchors can also be consciously set by presenting a specific stimulus during a strong emotional state.

It is best if the stimulus is presented just when the emotion or state is strongest. The stronger the emotion and the clearer the stimulus, the more effective the anchor will be.

For example, some people use certain room scents when they are in a very calm and concentrated state, for example, to study. They repeat this a few times and can later bring about this state at any time with the same room scent.

Alternatively, we can also work with touch.
Consciously deciding “Whenever I touch myself in this way, I remember this situation” can also lead to anchoring. For example, I have an anchor in which I have anchored all the special wonderful moments like the birth of my children. When I press my hand on my chest in the region of my heart and close my eyes, in a split second I am back in those memories and feel a deep gratitude and love.

The more diffuse or temporally offset a stimulus is to the emotional state to be anchored, the more repetitions are necessary.

How can we release anchors?

Releasing anchors can be achieved through “deconditioning”.

The most important thing is first of all to recognize the anchors.
Especially those that have developed subconsciously.
Self-reflection, the neutral observation and questioning of the perception of situations can be a useful tool.

When we become aware of our anchors, this already significantly weakens the effect of the anchors, however, they do not yet disappear as a result.

Weaken anchor

This means presenting the anchor stimulus several times without the associated emotional state to weaken the association.

In principle, this happens, for example, when we burn ourselves at the stove for the first time. This initially creates an anchor. With each time we use the stove, the anchor weakens over time and eventually no longer triggers fear. While we remain cautious, aware of the potential danger, we no longer have a panic fear of the stove.

There is also the beautiful saying “If you fall off the horse, get right back on”. It aims to make sure that you directly gain other experience and the negative experience can not “anchor” too firmly.

Overwrite” anchor

Another method is reconditioning, in which a new, positive state is linked to the existing anchor to overwrite the original response. Sometimes professional help is sought to release deep-seated anchors.

For example, if you have a negative association with a certain color, whether because it was very present when you experienced something negative, it can make sense to look for situations where this color is present, but has a completely different meaning.

NLP techniques can also be used, but the person doing this should know exactly what he is doing.

Release anchor

I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of anchors completely.
However, by practicing mindfulness and letting go (separate article on this topic coming soon), we can practice “letting go” of the anchors or the meaning we have for them by adding the neutral mental note each time we notice the anchor. We can realize that the only thing that has just exactly happened is that we perceived a stimulus and our mind wanted to present us with the associated memories / sensations, but the anchor itself is neither good nor bad.

How can we protect ourselves from manipulation?

How can we protect ourselves from having anchors set against our will?

Since we are exposed to so many stimuli in everyday life and in some places there are deliberate attempts to influence us through anchors, it makes sense to ask how we can protect ourselves.

The first means of protection is awareness of how anchors work and that and how anchors can be set. Knowing how they work will also make it easier for you to recognize when they show up in your life.

  1. Critical distance / Critical questioning
    A critical distance from emotionally charged situations or stimuli can help. When you consciously notice and question a situation, you minimize the chance that an unwanted anchor will be set.
  2. Self-reflection and analysis
    Regular self-reflection can help identify unwanted anchors. For example, you could keep a journal or meditate to better understand your thoughts and feelings.
  3. Mindfulness Practice
    Mindfulness techniques can help to be present in the present moment and thus interrupt the automatic linking of stimuli and reactions. If you are able to perceive stimuli from outside neutrally as what they are (stimuli) and without judging them, the influence they have on you diminishes. The theme of mindfulness meditation, consciously experiencing the present moment through conscious mindful awareness of what is affecting you and naming it neutrally (neutral mental note – more on that in another blog article) makes a significant difference.
  4. NLP techniques and tools
    There are also special techniques and tools, for example from the field of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming), which aim to “overwrite” or neutralize unwanted anchors. However, this topic should only be approached by someone who really knows about the subject.

Protection against the unintentional setting of anchors is thus a combination of awareness, self-reflection and, if necessary, professional support.

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