How to Deal With Bad Memories

bad memoriesNew research has emerged, offering helpful advice regarding how to deal with bad memories. Instead of dwelling on the emotions that you feel during a bad experience, researchers suggest that you should think about the context to help alleviate the negative effects of these memories.[1]

“Sometimes we dwell on how sad, embarrassed, or hurt we felt during an event, and that makes us feel worse and worse,” said psychology professor at the Bechman Institute at the University of Illinois, Florin Dolcos, PhD. “This is what happens in clinical depression—ruminating on the negative aspects of a memory.”1

The researchers, led by Dolcos, found that instead of concentrating on emotions that are linked to bad memories, thinking about the context, such as a friend who was there, what the weather was like, and other non-emotional aspects that are linked with the memory, can help take your mind off of the unwanted emotions that are associated.1

“Once you immerse yourself in other details, your mind will wander to something else entirely, and you won’t be focused on the negative emotions as much,” said Dolcos. “This simple strategy is an alternative to other strategies, such as suppression or reappraisal.”1

Co-author of the study, Sandra Dolcos, added “Suppression is bottling up your emotions, trying to put them away in a box. This is a strategy that can be effective in the short term, but in the long run, it increases anxiety and depression. Another otherwise effective emotion regulation strategy, reappraisal, or looking at the situation differently to see the glass half full, can be cognitively demanding. The strategy of focusing on non-emotional contextual details of a memory, on the other hand, is as simple as shifting to focus in the mental movie of your memories and then letting your mind wander.”1

For the study, participants were asked to share their most emotional negative and positive memories.1 Several weeks later, they were given cues that would trigger their memories while their brains were scanned using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).1

“Before each memory cue, the participants were asked to remember each event by focusing on either the emotion surrounding the event or the context,” the researchers said.1

For example, if the cue triggered a memory of the death of a parent, thinking about the emotional context consists of remembering the grief felt.1 When thinking about the contextual elements, a person may instead remember which outfit they wore or what they ate.1

“Neurologically, we wanted to know what happened in the brain when people were using this simple emotion-regulation strategy to deal with negative memories or enhance the impact of positive memories,” said Ekaterina Denkova, first author of the report. “One thing we found is that when participants were focused on the context of the event, brain regions involved in basic emotion processing were working together with emotion control regions in order to, in the end, reduce the emotional impact of these memories.”1

[1] Wood, J. (2014). Scientists Find a Better Way to Deal With Bad Memories. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 22, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/news/2014/04/19/scientists-find-a-better-way-to-deal-with-bad-memories/68724.html

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