Easing Difficult Memories

“My dad loved going to Oaks Park and riding the roller coaster with me.” “Steve and I met during our Freshman year at college.” “Carla, my youngest sister, always tried to steal my Halloween candy.” Memories are what those who are grieving have left. Many of these memories come with laughter and sometimes tears of joy as children, teens, and adults recall times spent together. Other memories though can bring great sadness, regret, and intense physical responses. New research from the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois offers a way for people to help dispel the emotional charge of their worst memories. Researchers at the Institute found that when remembering difficult memories, people tend to focus on the negative emotions they experienced (sadness, embarrassment, fear, etc). They discovered that by simply turning the focus away from the emotions and putting it instead into remembering the contextual details such as the weather, what they were wearing, and who was with them, people were able to turn down the volume on the intensity of the negative emotions associated with the memory. This tactic offers an alternative to suppression and reappraisal, the two ways that people often try to deal with challenging memories. Suppression means pushing the thoughts and emotions away while reappraisal encourages people to look for the “silver lining” in a situation, a strategy that demands a lot of mental energy that most grieving people find to be in short supply.

Based on these research findings, we invited children, teens, and young adults in our peer support groups to try out a new way of processing hard memories. We asked them to bring to mind a situation related to their grief that is hard for them to think about and then list anything they could recall about the situation that wasn’t related to their emotions. Children remembered the color of the walls in the hospital (“White!”) and who their teacher was at the time. Teens talked about what song was on their Ipod when they got word that the person died and what they wore to the funeral. We were surprised by how quickly this worked to shift the memories for some participants. After doing the activity, one teen boy shared that in thinking back to all the details, he remembered a few of the good things such as making the varsity baseball team and getting asked to prom, that were happening at the same time as the memory he dreaded thinking about. This approach offers people an element of choice when it comes to images or thoughts that have potential to overwhelm them with distressing emotions. Perhaps there is a memory that you struggle with? If you decide to experiment with this idea, let us know what you discover. We’d love to hear from you.