Instead of dwelling on the emotions you felt during a bad experience, researchers suggest you think about the context — who was with you at the time or what the weather was like — to alleviate the negative effects of these memories.
“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,” said Florin Dolcos Ph.D, a psychology professor at the Bechman Institute at the University of Illinois.
In a new study, researchers led by Dolcos found that instead of concentrating on emotions related to a negative memory, 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, “rather effortlessly” takes 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,” he said.
This simple strategy is an alternative to other strategies, such as suppression or reappraisal, he noted.
“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,” added 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,” she continued. “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.”
For 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.
Several weeks later they 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,” the researchers said.
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, the scientists explained. 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.”
The researchers said they 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 people to see if this strategy is effective in alleviating these psychiatric conditions, they added.
The study was published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.