New study shows focusing on context could help distracting memories

By Therese Pokorney , Staff Writer

Bad memories can either make or break you, according to a new study done by two psychology professors at the University.  The study suggests using the right coping strategies can help manage distressing memories, like focusing on the contextual details of a bad memory.

Study leader Florin Dolcos and his colleagues Dr. Alex Lordan and co-author Sanda Dolcos showed how brain activity and performance on a memory task change when participants were told to concentrate on the emotional aspect of triggering memories, compared to focusing on non-emotional contextual details.

“When certain regions in the brain that process emotion are stimulated, they take resources away and distract you,” Florin said. “The shift in focus from emotion to context, you are limiting the distractions and putting the resources back into those regions.”

The researchers surveyed 33 participants about events in their lives, followed by a cognitive memory task during a functional MRI scan to monitor brain activity. Florin said he and his collaborators chose events participants recorded and used them to trigger negative thoughts during the scan.

Participants were told to concentrate on the emotional facet of half of their memories and the contextual detail, or who, what, when and why, for the other half.

The fMRI found reduced activity in regions involving reasoning and memory when participants focused on emotion, Florin said. However, when participants focused on the context of the memories, the researchers found an increase in activity associated with executive function and attention.

Florin said being affiliated with the University motivated the study, because of increasing concerns about the mental health status of students.

“Staying happy used to seem like a full-time job,” said Terrel Baker, junior in ACES. “Students have to constantly be working, studying or doing other things. I don’t have time to think about the past.”

The main goal of the study is to provide resources for students like Baker, Florin said. However, he said the study findings are not limited to college students.

“This study was inspired by concerns about student stress and student life,” Florin said. “We need to find solutions for people to be able to cope with distressing memories. Instead of suppressing emotional memories, it’s better that we shift the focus to bring other aspects of those memories to our mind.”

Florin said the technique may also help those who struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder or debilitating emotional memories. The study helped discover new ways to process emotional memories to complement other techniques such as cognitive reappraisal or finding the silver lining, he said.

For Baker, his memory-induced stress seems to be less prominent during his busier days. His method seems like the main ingredient to reduce his anxiety that stems from past traumas.

“If I have time to think about what happened in the past, then I have time to do something else,” he said. “I don’t even acknowledge negative memories anymore. If I get a bad thought I’m like, ‘No, not today’ and move on. Ignoring them just works.”

Although Florin said the method Baker is using may work temporarily, it is not efficient. Instead of blocking intrusive memories, bringing the non-emotional context to your mind and seeing the good part of the memories is better than suppressing the memory right away, he said.

“Everyone has trauma — some people more than others — and these memories can cause difficulties doing daily tasks, not just for students but also for those with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression or anxiety, so finding ways to help them cope better with such memories is important,” Florin said.

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