The efficient way to deal with bad memories


Psychologists say that remembering the emotions felt during a negative personal experience, such as how sad you were at that moment or how embarrassed you felt, can lead to emotional distress, especially when you are ruminating about it.

A new study suggests that thinking about the context of the memories, rather than accompanied negative feelings, is a relatively easy and effective way to alleviate the negative effects of these memories.

Researchers at the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois, directed by psychology professor Florin Dolcos of the Cognitive Neuroscience Group, studied the behavioral and neural mechanisms of focusing away from emotions during recollection of personal emotional memories. They showed that thinking about the contextual elements of the memories significantly reduces their emotional impact.

In this study, the participants were asked to share their most negative and positive emotional memories, such as the birth of a child, winning an award, or failing an exam. After a few weeks the 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 of the event. For instance, if the cue triggered a memory of a close friend’s funeral, thinking about the emotional context could consist of remembering the grief during the event. If the participant was asked to remember contextual elements, he or she might instead recall what outfit was worn at 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,” clarifies Ekaterina Denkova, the first author of the study. “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 Dolcos adds that using this strategy helps establish healthy functioning not only by reducing the negative impact of remembering unwanted memories, but also by increasing the positive impact of important memories.

bigstock-Unhappy-young-man-s“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 extrapolates. “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.”

The study suggests that this strategy 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,” claims 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.”

The research group believes that this strategy allows not only for effective short-term emotion regulation, but it also helps in lessening the severity of negative memories with prolonged use.

However, more research is needed to prove that the strategy is indeed effective in lessening the severity of negative memories over the long term. In the future the researchers also plan to work with clinically depressed or anxious subjects to see if this strategy is effective in alleviating these psychiatric conditions.


Primary Source:

Journal Reference:

E. Denkova, S. Dolcos, F. Dolcos. Neural correlates of ‘distracting’ from emotion during autobiographical recollection. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2014; DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsu039





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