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Whether it's a not-so-friendly email from the boss, a hurtful quip from a friend, or a passing-gas-in-public incident (happens to the best of us), a bad memory can haunt us for days on end. What's the best way to deal? A new study suggests we embrace those unpleasant moments — by focusing on their silver linings.
Instead of replaying the unfortunate scene on a mental loop, we should take a hint from this new study from the University of Illinois, which proposes we think about the context of the awkwardness instead. By focusing on a memory's happier elements — such as pleasant weather, or a good friend who was there at the time — we may be able to lessen the blow of emotional distress.
Study participants were asked to share their most powerful negative memories, such as the death of a loved one. Several weeks later, researchers asked them to recall those memories. They then used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine the participants' behavioral and neural activity — first when they focused on their grief, and second when they focused only on contextual details, such as what they wore that day or what they ate for breakfast. By zeroing in on specifics that had nothing to do with bad feelings, the participants' brain regions worked together to reduce the memory's overall emotional impact.
Many of us resort to suppressing unfortunate memories; this may be effective in the short term, but it's not a great long-term solution (and may even increase anxiety and depression, according to the study's authors). Previous research suggests quashing negative emotions may cause negative physiological responses, including increased blood pressure, elevated heart rate, and pain. Given this new study, we wonder — could concentrating on a memory's happier (or, at least, inoffensive) elements have a reverse effect? Could this technique eventually work to lower blood pressure or decrease pain? The jury is still out.
We get that the last thing you want to do after a regrettable event is to make yourself contemplate it — any part of it. We also understand that forcing yourself to think, “Wow! The sunset was so beautiful the night Jimmy publicly broke up with me!” may feel silly. But, if nothing else, this approach to handling bad memories is easy, quick, and free. We think it's worth a shot — better than hiding under the covers until the memory fades, anyway.