Everyone has bad memories, and constantly remembering how terrible we felt during those negative experiences only makes us feel worse.
But a way to ease the emotional sting could be to focus instead on the context surrounding the negative event, instead of the emotions experienced during the event, according to a new study in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
"Instead of thinking about your emotions during a negative memory, looking away from the worst emotions and thinking about the context, like a friend who was there, what the weather was like, or anything else non-emotional that was part of the memory, will rather effortlessly take your mind away from the unwanted emotions associated with that memory," explained study researcher Florin Dolcos, a psychology professor at the university, in a statement. "Once you immerse yourself in other details, your mind will wander to something else entirely, and you won’t be focused on the negative emotions as much."
Researchers from the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois conducted brain imaging using MRI on study participants who were asked several weeks prior to think about an emotional positive or negative memory (such as failing a test, or winning an award). Then, during the MRI, the study participants were given cues to trigger those positive or negative memories. But before each cue, researchers asked the participants to either think about the emotion they felt during the past event (happy, sad, etc.), or the context of the past event (what the person wore that day, what the person ate that day, etc.).
Researchers found a difference in brain activity between the participants asked to remember the emotion of the past event, and the context of the past event.
"When participants were focused on the context of the event, brain regions involved in basic emotion processing were working together with emotion control regions in order to, in the end, reduce the emotional impact of these memories," study researcher Ekaterina Denkova explained in the statement.
This strategy -- of focusing on the context of a past negative event, rather than the emotions experienced during the event -- works through shifting focus away from the negativity by letting the mind wander. Researchers said people would likely find more success with this strategy than by suppressing the unwanted memory, since suppression can ultimately lead to anxiety and depression.