“Concern should drive us into action and not into a depression. No man is free who cannot control himself.” – Pythagoras
Some people have greater tendencies to experience episodes of depression at different points throughout their lifetimes. A wide variety of biological, temperamental, environmental, psychological, and social factors impact various outcomes. A recent study found evidence that some women are more likely than others to experience depressive episodes because of the ways in which they tend to relate to negative memories.
Interestingly, the women found to be at high risk for depressive episodes in this study were well-functioning healthy women. The trait that these women had in common was a tendency toward testing high in the personality trait of neuroticism, which is associated with a low tolerance for stressful stimuli and a tendency to experience emotions such as anxiety or guilt. This trait may manifest itself outwardly as a tendency to interpret ordinary situations as threatening and to have some difficulty with decision-making as a result.
The idea behind the personality trait of neuroticism and the findings of this study is that these women demonstrated a greater tendency than women scoring low in neuroticism to ruminate (replay in one’s mind or dwell on) negative memories. A proclivity toward rumination as a coping mechanism means that the individual engages in “behaviors or thoughts that focus… attention [on] the possible causes and consequences of that mood” (Kruglanski & Higgins, 2007). This is essentially an attempt to work through distressing thoughts or emotions that turns out to be ineffective, as it may lead to the negative internal experience(s) being recycled (without resolution) in the mind.
It is a bit sadly ironic that the women who made greater attempts to suppress unpleasant memories were actually more likely to remember them and consequently feel badly for thinking about them, as opposed to the women who made no such attempts to suppress the negative memories (or used alternate coping strategies). Researchers found no such link with men.
Consider the difference within your own experience of times when you consciously try to push away a negative memory, as opposed to applying an attitude of mindfulness to the experience. For the women who chose to use alternative coping strategies to deal with unpleasant memories, their subjective experience of internal suffering was lessened. This concept relates back to the idea of experiential avoidance; when you actively try to avoid or deny unpleasant experiences, suffering only increases. It is when you mindfully observe, accept, and release the negativity that suffering diminishes. Similarly, when you choose to apply emotion regulation strategies to unpleasant internal experiences, you are proactively reducing suffering and rumination.
Findings from this research indicate that actively learning how to handle emotional challenges – such as negative memories – in a healthy manner may actually help prevent depression. The participants included in this study were men and women with no prior history of depression or other psychiatric disorders. They agreed to fill out questionnaires specifically designed to evoke negative memories (e.g., being hospitalized or witnessing an accident). Participants then recorded the frequency with which they thought about the negative memories and rated the corresponding emotional intensity. The study only included those memories that held strong emotional significance for the participant.
Researchers discovered that men scoring high in neuroticism tended to recall more negative memories than the men scoring low in neuroticism (regardless of whether or not these men had actually experienced more or less negative events). The women scoring high in neuroticism displayed a different response than the men in that they showed a greater tendency to internally revisit (ruminate on) those negative memories with some frequency in their minds.
The study also examined two different approaches to dealing with negative memories: suppression (actively attempting to push a memory out of conscious awareness) and reappraisal (attempting to “lessen the blow” of a negative memory by choosing to reflect on it from a different perspective). An example of reappraisal of a negative memory could be as simple as reflecting on the positive aspects or lessons learned from an otherwise unpleasant experience.
Choosing to deal with unpleasant memories by avoiding/suppressing them results in denying yourself the opportunity to work through or resolve your emotions about the situation. Alternatively, if you decide to reflect on negative memories with an proactive and mindful attitude, you are allowing yourself the opportunity to reappraise the significance/meaning of those unpleasant memories and arrive at a solution that allows for reduced suffering and emotional peace.
If you identify with the personality trait of neuroticism, try not to view this as some kind of “sentence” toward being doomed to deal with unpleasant memories in an ineffective way. Recognize your capacity to increase psychological flexibility, self-awareness, mindfulness, and emotion regulation skills. Generally speaking, these types of personality traits are not your “fault” and not something that you “chose” to adopt. Rather than lament the fact that some things in life may be more difficult for you than for others who were dealt a different hand, stand up and become empowered by the realization that there are incredibly useful skills that you can learn and practice to become more effective in dealing with difficult thoughts and emotions.
The next time that you find yourself gravitating toward a pattern of ruminative thinking about unpleasant memories, take a moment to pause and mindfully recognize this is occurring in the present moment. Take a few slow deep breaths as you acknowledge and accept that you are engaging in a familiar pattern of rumination. Within this quiet space of mindful awareness, allow yourself the chance to make a detour away from rumination and toward reappraisal of the negative memory. Research supports that actively engaging in cognitive reappraisal of negative memories may actually prevent the development of depression.
We all experience unpleasant events and have mental and emotional “vaults” of varying sizes that house all of our unpleasant, negative, or disturbing memories. No one is “exempt” from experiencing some unpleasant experiences in life; what matters is how you choose to deal with those experiences. Take a moment to reflect on the degree of choice that you have regarding whether or not that “vault” will become full to the brim from engaging in rumination and/or suppression of negative memories. What do you have to lose by actively reappraising those negative memories? Perhaps… emotional suffering, depression, stress, and anxiety. It’s up to you.
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If you are interested in assessing your level of the personality trait of neuroticism, you may take a free version of “The Big Five” personality questionnaire. This test assesses five factors of personality: (1) openness to experience, (2) conscientiousness, (3) extraversion, (4) agreeableness, and (5) neuroticism.
Kruglanski, A.W., & Higgins, E.T. (2007) Social psychology: Handbook of basic principles. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Pedersen, T. (2012). Returning to Bad Memories Linked to Depression in Women.Psych Central. Retrieved on April 15, 2012, from http://psychcentral.com/news/2012/04/15/returning-to-bad-memories-linked-to-depression-in-women/37363.html
Featured image: 166 by Mitya Kuznetsov / CC BY-SA 2.0