Focusing On Context Helps Alleviate Bad Memories
April 21, 2014

Focusing On Context Helps Alleviate Bad Memories

Brett Smith for – Your Universe Online

When we go through a traumatic, embarrassing or otherwise negative experience, our minds will often replay those memories – stirring up unwanted emotions over and over again.

Now, a new study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Alberta in Canada has revealed that focusing on the context surrounding the negative event, such as the weather or who was there at the time, can help to alleviate the stress of those memories.

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

The study authors said that focusing on the context of a negative memory is a much more effective strategy for alleviating stress than other coping mechanisms 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,” said study co-author Sanda Dolcos, a postdoctoral psychology research associate at UCIC.

“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.”

In the study, which was published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, the researchers asked participants to describe emotional bad and happy memories, such as being awarded an honor or failing a test. At a follow-up session several weeks later, participants were provided triggers designed to induce their recollections while their brains were being examined via 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 study team said.

For example, participants recalling a close friend’s funeral may have been told to think about how they felt at the time or, conversely, what they were wearing or 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,” said study co-author Ekaterina Denkova, a postdoctoral fellow in the psychiatry department at the University of Alberta.

“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,” Denkova added.

The study team said they hope to ascertain if this technique is efficient at reducing the severity of damaging memories in the long run. In addition, they said they expect to consult with clinically depressed or anxious people to check if this strategy is effective in relieving these psychiatric conditions.