New Way to Deal With Bad Memories

By Heather Callaghan

If you ever find yourself ruminating on a bad memory, there might be a simple mind trick you could try today.

There are a lot of holistic approaches to dealing with the effects of bad past experiences. For instance, a lot of modalities under the umbrella of naturopathy. And while people report relief from these methods, they do require some personal researching to find the best method, some time and some money.

And maybe all those self-help books promising positive thoughts left you down. Maybe the Power of Now didn’t keep you from meandering back to the past. Maybe it doesn’t work just to tell yourself calm down!

Yet researchers think they have found a way to take care of the issue for free…and right now.

Researchers at the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois, led by psychology professor Florin Dolcos (above, right) 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.

In other words, getting away from how you felt at the time and focusing on the context of memories is a relatively easy, effective way to alleviate the negative effects or continuing “tire tracks” of the memories.

Dolcos said:

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. 

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.

Other methods under psychiatry are often time consuming, expensive and true effectiveness is not easy to measure. The study authors suggest this new way of thinking of bad memories is a good alternative strategy to the two common methods of emotion-regulation therapy: suppression or reappraisal.

Sandra Dolcos (above, left) said:

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 the focus in the mental movie of your memories and then letting your mind wander.

They say that, not only does it help in the short-term, but that with prolonged use, can continue lessening the severity of a negative memory.

They may not have used the most relate-able examples in the study, but here’s what happened when 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 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. Hmm, simple enough.

Another author commented:

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.

Florin thinks this method promotes emotional health not only by reducing negative impact from unwanted memories but also increases the positive impact of cherished memories. Now, that’s pretty sweet.
Who wouldn’t want a positive memory upgrade?

Speaking of context though, let’s try this method in the context of greater holistic health. Whole food nutrition and physical activity can go a long way toward stabilizing moods and strengthening focus and concentration for current tasks.
Do you think this method will help?

The researchers hope to continue this research over the long term and see if expansion can help with clinically depressed and anxiety-ridden participants to actually remove those conditions. These results were published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

Heather Callaghan is a natural health blogger and food freedom activist. You can see her work at and Like at Facebook.

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