Researchers have determined a simple and effective
emotion-regulation strategy that has neurologically and behaviorally been proven
to lessen the emotional impact of personal negative memories. Credit: Beckman
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
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.
In the study, participants were asked to share their
most emotional negative and
positive memories, such as the birth of a child, winning an award, or
failing an exam, explained Sanda Dolcos. Several weeks later participants were
given cues that would trigger their memories while their brains were being
scanned using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Before each memory cue, the
participants were asked to remember each event by focusing on either the emotion
surrounding the event or the context. For example, if the cue triggered a memory
of a close friend's funeral, thinking about the emotional context could consist
of remembering your grief during the event. If you were asked to remember
contextual elements, you might instead remember what outfit you wore or what you
ate that day.
"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," explained
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."
Using this strategy promotes healthy functioning not
only by reducing the negative impact of remembering unwanted memories, but also
by increasing the positive impact of cherished memories, Florin Dolcos said.
In the future, the researchers hope to determine if
this strategy is effective in lessening the severity of negative memories over
the long term. They also hope to work with clinically depressed or anxious
participants to see if this strategy is effective in alleviating these
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