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August Cassens – What’s one of your worst memories? How did it make you feel? According to psychologists, remembering the emotions felt during a negative personal experience, such as how sad you were or how embarrassed you felt, can lead to emotional distress, especially when you can’t stop thinking about it.
When these negative memories creep up, thinking about the context of the memories, rather than how you felt, is a relatively easy and effective way to alleviate the negative effects of these memories, a new study suggests.
Researchers at the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois, led by psychology professor Florin Dolcos of the Cognitive Neuroscience Group, studied the behavioral and neural mechanisms of focusing away from emotion during recollection of personal emotional memories, and found that thinking about the contextual elements of the memories significantly reduced their emotional impact.
“Sometimes we dwell on how sad, embarrassed, or hurt we felt during an event, and that makes us feel worse and worse. This is what happens in clinical depression—ruminating on the negative aspects of a memory,” Dolcos said. “But we found that instead of thinking about your emotions during a negative memory, looking away from the worst emotions and thinking about the context, like a friend who was there, what the weather was like, or anything else non-emotional that was part of the memory, will rather effortlessly take your mind away from the unwanted emotions associated with that memory. 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.”
This simple strategy, the study suggests, is a promising alternative to other emotion-regulation strategies, like suppression or reappraisal.
“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,” explains Sanda Dolcos, co-author on the study and postdoctoral research associate at the Beckman Institute and in the Department of Psychology.
“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 the focus in the mental movie of your memories and then letting your mind wander.”
Not only does this strategy allow for effective short-term emotion regulation, but it has the possibility of lessening the severity of a negative memory with prolonged use.
It is both fascinating and useful that, because memory is a reconstruction, we can change old memories by repackaging them. This can be quite powerful for changing your own behaviors. For example, if you re-frame cravings for junk food as an attack by powerful chemicals designed to trick you into wasting your money on something that makes you sick in the long run, you can decide that you are no longer a sucker and instead eat something healthy.
Of course, what is really healthy is usually not critically and carefully and open-mindedly examined based on the latest research, but that’s another topic.