Emotional Resilience Blog from The Fear Course

The latest research, realisations and thinking in the world of emotional resilience, anxiety and fear reduction from around the world.

How to deal with bad memories

How to deal with bad memories

What happens when you find yourself thinking about a bad memory? It could be a sad memory of the death of someone close or something embarrassing like making a fool of yourself in front of other people for example. How do you end up feeling?

Quite often these types of bad memories can just arrive out of the blue and the frequently show up when we are feeling down or anxious.

A team of researchers at the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois have been researching a series of strategies for dealing with such bad memories. The findings of the study, published yesterday in a journal paper reveal a strategy that makes a significant difference to the emotional effect of such memories, and can really reduce the negative emotion associated with such memories.

These memories, known as episodic memories are common and everyone has them. An episodic memory is a memory trace which is laid down in the brain which includes the associated feelings present at that time. So when we come back to the memory we also tend to get the feeling present at the time the incident was occurring. The interesting thing about episodic memories is that a lot of other information also gets encoded, especially during significant emotional events like a funeral or a wedding for example. Information like the weather, what people were saying, who was there etc.

Police use this effect in a process called cognitive interviewing, to get more detailed pictures of what happened during high emotion events like accidents, robberies and the like. As these memories are strung together using an emotional thread, it is possible to use the emotion and the cognitive linking to get the detail back out from such an incident.

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, for example. A number of weeks later the subjects were given cues that would trigger those memories whilst they were in an MRI scanner, to see what was happening in their brains as they recalled the memories and put a series of strategies into effect to reduce the negative impact of this memories.

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.

What the researchers found was that focussing on the context of the memories, rather than the emotional element had a significant effect to both reduce the impact of bad memories but also improve and enhance positive memories.

"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." explained Ekaterina Denkova the lead author of the paper.

So if you find yourself, like many of us do, stuck in a bad memory, focus on the context, what were people wearing, what was the weather like, or the decor of the room, the temperature etc.

And if you have treasured memories doing the same will give you greater pleasure.

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Denkova, E., Dolcos, S. & Dolcos, F. (2014) Neural Correlates of 'Distracting' from Emotion during Autobiographical Recollection. Journal of Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. 9 (4) doi:10.1093/scan/nsu039

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