Depression can be prevented by ‘reappraising’ negative memories, study suggests
The thoughts we have — and how we deal with it — can make us fall into a downward spiral of depression — or can help us stave if off. That’s the basic finding of a new study in the journal Emotion.
Women, in particular, may be particularly prone to depression because of the way they deal with negative memories, researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign say.
Otherwise healthy women who tested high for “neuroticism” — a trait associated with having more negative emotions like anxiety — tend to ruminate or return to their bad memories to think about them over and over. This action can cause depression, the researchers say.
But when women deal with negative memories by trying to suppress, these memories only returned with a vengeance — they were more likely to recall negative memories and then feel bad after remembering them. No such link was found in men.
The findings suggest that by changing the way we deal with negative memories, we may help prevent depression, says study researcher Florin Dolcos, a University of Illinois psychology professor.
What the researchers did
For their study, the University of Illinois researchers recruited 71 people — 38 women and 33 men — between the ages 18 to 34. None of the study participants was diagnosed with depression or any other kind of serious emotional disorder.
Participants completed a personality test. Then, they gave participants a questionnaire with 115 phrases intended to elicit memories of distinct life events such as:
• “being hospitalized”
• “birth of a family member”
• “witnessing an accident”
For each life event they could recall, participants reported:
• the date of the event
• how often they thought about it
They then rated the emotional significance of the memory. For the study’s analysis, the researchers only chose memories with strong emotional significance.
The researchers found that:
• Men and women with what psychologists call “neuroticism” are more likely to “return to the same negative memories again and again” and have more negative thinking experiences.
• Women and women with neuroticism tend to ruminate and this is linked with depression.
“Depressed people recollect those negative memories and as a result they feel sad,” says Dolcos. “And as a result of feeling sad, the tendency is to have more negative memories recollected. It’s a kind of a vicious circle.”
The researchers then assessed participants’ tendencies to deal with bad memories through two strategies:
• Suppression — trying not to think about a memory
• Reappraisal — attempting to reduce the impact of negative memories by putting a new perspective on these or focusing on the positive aspects of the situation. For example, you may remember that while you failed to get a job, an opportunity or new connection resulted from the interview.
The researchers found that:
• Men who tried to reappraise their bad memories were also the ones who remembered more positive memories overall than others.
• But women who reappraised their memories didn’t have fewer bad memories and didn’t end up more positive. This suggests that the mechanism of reappraising memories works better in men.
What about suppressing memories?
The researchers found that women who suppressed their bad memories were more likely to remember those bad memories in the first place, and were also more likely to suffer a bad mood after thinking about those memories.
The investigators also found that men and women who are extroverted are more likely to look back at positive things that have happened in their lives.