Can’t quit thinking about an episode of abuse? Does the memory of an auto accident haunt you? Defusing the negative emotions caused by bad memories may be easier if you focus on neutral aspects of the memory.
Mental strategies to deal with negative memories include suppressing the memory, reappraising the memory or distraction from the negative content of the memory.
New research by Dr. Ekaterina Denkova, Dr. Sanda Dolcos and Dr. Florin Dolcos from the University of Illinois utilized functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on seventeen healthy men to see what happens in the brain when people are cued to remember a negative memory, and then distracted from thinking about the emotions it brings up.
Mental health professionals can teach you suppression, or burying the memory, but this method has some drawbacks. According to Rick Neuhart, Ph.D. ‘research has shown that suppressing unwanted memories reduces people’s ability to consciously remember the experiences.” This could present problems when legal issues are involved. Furthermore, “not all people were equally good at this.”
Additionally, psychologists since Freud have worried that suppressing certain experiences might lead to those experiences influencing behavior unconsciously.
Reappraisal of Trauma
Reappraisal, defined in Frontiers in Psychology, is “a conscious, deliberate change in the way an emotional stimulus is interpreted, initiated in order to change its emotion-eliciting character.” While the article notes reappraisal can be used to “down-regulate negative emotions, including anxiety” it is not always possible to implement.
Denkova et al. note that one downside of reappraisal is that some individuals have difficulty reappraising events, or there is a “lack of flexibility in deploying attention to different aspects of representations.” These people may find reappraising a trauma as a learning experience, or seeing a painful exit from a relationship as a chance for a new start, for example, impossible. Distraction provides another way to deal with the hurtful memory.
Distraction From Painful Memories
Denkova et al. set out to understand the brain activity that occurs when someone is distracted from focusing on the negative emotional aspects of an autobiographical memory or AM. The researchers mapped distraction, or “manipulating the retrieval focus” in the brain to understand the neurological aspects of distraction.
The researchers identified forty memories, 20 negative and 20 positive memories, for each participant. They then presented an image designed to bring each memory to mind to the subject during the fMRI. Then, after preparing the subject to remember the distressing event, the researchers instructed the subjects to complete a mental task that involved changing focus from the emotional aspects of the memory to the more mundane, neutral aspects, or context of the memory.
The results indicated that without suppressing the memory, or trying to re-frame the memory, mere distraction from the negative emotional aspects of the memory changed the way the brain processed the event. Specifically, areas in the amygdala (base of the fight-or-flight impulse, and fear) lit up less, and the brain used areas in the ventromedial pre-frontal cortex (focus of inhibiting emotional responses) more.
Implications of Using Distraction in Treatment
In sum, distraction worked to lessen the emotional impact of a negative memory. Distraction offers hope for those with cognitive impairment who might find reappraisal impossible.
Dr. Florin Dolcos, a member of the research team, told Decoded Science, ” this strategy…’lets the memories be’, e.g., without suppressing them (which on a long run is not effective). This strategy (attentional focus), though, can work well together with cognitive reappraisal, which is an effective strategy. However, reappraisal may be too cognitively demanding, particularly in clinical patients with impaired cognitive/executive abilities.”
While stating he is not a therapist, Dolocos continues, “I can see how therapists could encourage their patience to focus on non-emotional aspects of their distressing memories.” He continues, “ Actually, I have recently been contacted by some practitioners who either already use similar techniques or find our findings intriguing and with possible practical applicability in therapeutic interventions.”
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Neuroscience
While distressing events leading to post traumatic stress disorder may never abate, neuroscience offers new hope for therapists and people suffering from the aftereffects of war, abuse, and accidental trauma.