How to save yourself from emotional illnesses

How you process your memories, both good and bad, directly affects your emotional health

A man laughing
To stay happy, focus more on happy memories

Most meaningful memories are about events that have either given us joy or brought us sorrow—memories that are emotional. However, researchers have found that all of us don’t process such emotional memories in the same way. The strategies we use to process them can have a profound impact on our emotional health.

“We’re looking at traits that are associated with the way that people process the emotional world and the way that they respond to it,” said University of Illinois psychology professor Florin Dolcos, who conducted the study with postdoctoral researcher Sanda Dolcos and University of Alberta postdoctoral researcher Ekaterina Denkova. “We wanted to look not only at how personality traits might influence what and how people remember, but also to examine how that impacts their (subsequent) emotional state.”

The researchers found that men and women who are extroverts [gregarious, assertive, stimulus-seeking] tend to remember more positive than negative life events. Men who tend to focus on negative emotions [neuroticism] recall a greater proportion of negative memories than men who are low in neuroticism. Women who were high in neuroticism often revisit the same negative memories again and again [rumination, which is linked with clinical depression].

“Depressed people recollect those negative memories and as a result they feel sad,” he said. “And as a result of feeling sad, the tendency is to have more negative memories recollected. It’s a kind of a vicious circle,” explained Dolcos.

Even though none of the study participants had been diagnosed with depression or other emotional disorders, all participants irrespective of their gender, felt low after recalling negative memories about events in their life.

The most significant differences between men and women are a result of the emotional strategies they use when recalling negative memories about self. Men who engage in reappraisal, making an effort to think differently about their memories, are likely to recall more positive memories than their peers. Whereas men who use suppression, trying to tamp down their negative emotional responses, see no pronounced effect on the recall of positive or negative memories. In women, however, suppression is significantly associated with the recall of negative memories and with a lower mood afterwards.

According to researcher Sanda Dolcos, the findings will help both men and women process their emotions. Both can benefit by becoming more outgoing, interrupting rumination and using reappraisal for dealing with negative memories and cherishing the positive ones to save themselves from emotional illnesses.



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