Neuroticism, Depression, & Memory Reappraisal

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.

Reappraising memories
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.

Extroversion helps
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.

“Our findings provide initial evidence that extraversion, typically associated with being assertive and experiencing excitement and positive affect, also contributes to remembering more positive personal experiences and to maintaining a positive state,” the researchers wrote in the study.

Overall, the researchers say the takeaway is that in dealing with negative memories, certain coping methods seem to work better than others:

  • Channel your outgoing side.
  • Try not to let yourself ruminate and dwell on negative thoughts.
  • Instead, focus on positive memories.
  • But don’t suppress bad memories, either.
  • Instead, try to resolve these memories by reappraising them in a more positive light.

Switching to a strategy of reappraisal, and interrupting memory rumination, may be ways to prevent development of clinical disorders, including depression, Dolcos even suggests.

Tackling the stigma of depression
Meanwhile, a local school in Ontario, Canada found that by launching an anti-stigma campaign — named Disable the Label — students with depression, anxiety and other mental health struggles are more likely to reach out for the help they need.

And precisely because it was spearheaded by a teenager suffering from depression, the campaign’s message at Chesley District High School has been even more powerful, students say.

The campaign was launched on April 13 by Grade 12 student Kathryn Loucks, who also raised a whopping US$11,000 for the campaign from donations, planned speaking engagements and workshops, as well as government grants. Since depression struck Loucks in 2010, she’s become a fierce advocate for student mental health.

At the students’ assembly on April 13, Loucks told Cheney students, “The point of today is to highlight the resources that are available in the area and to combat the stigma associated with mental illness, as it can be more harmful than the illness itself.”

Loucks is one of eight Ontario students to sit on the youth action committee advising the board of Children’s Mental Health Ontario (CMHO) this year. She’s also been recruited for similar roles in the community.

CMHO executive director Phil Dodd says his group was so impressed with Loucks’ project that they’ve hired her for the summer to help develop a template to offer similar programs in all area high schools.

She also launched the related “Arrange the Change” suicide prevention arts competition, with US$900 in prizes, in which students were inspired to express their thoughts about mental health and suicide awareness through videos, songs, writing and visual arts.

Grade 12 student Sarah Dufton, who also battles anxiety and depression since grade 7 made the dramatic video that won the first prize iPad. Dufton lost much of last semester to depression. Her three-minute video can be viewed online at

Because students understand Loucks initiated the project partly as a result of her own experiences with depression, there’s strong student support and interest, she says.

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