Palm-to-face moments come in all shapes and sizes. From spilling your drink on a hot guy to tanking your work presentation, we all have a bad memory or two (or 12) lurking in our noggins. Some you can look back on and laugh hysterically, while others you’re still not over, even years later. Maybe you’re obsessing about them right now. You’ve tried ignoring them, you’ve tried the whole glass-half-full thing, but nothing’s worked. Mercifully, new research offers a fresh approach to healing old wounds.
When we think back on emotionally charged events, we end up dwelling on how embarrassed or hurt we felt and perpetually relive the same awful feelings over and over again. “Focusing on the negative experiences increases our unwanted emotions, which makes us see more negative things until they’re all we see,” says clinical psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., author of “Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You’ll Love.” “It’s like pushing on a bruise. It doesn’t feel good and it prevents healing.”
New research suggests that focusing on the context of a crappy memory—like what you ate that day or what you wore—instead of thinking about how you felt, helps alleviate the stress spiral these memories create.
In an April 2014 study led by Florin Dolcos, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Illinois, participants had to recall their most emotional negative memories while their brains were being scanned by fMRI. They were asked to focus on either the emotion elicited by the event or the details of it, such as where and when it took place, the weather that day, and who else was there. After comparing the brain scans, the researchers found that when participants thought about the non-emotional aspects of the memory, activity in their brains' emotional centers decreased, and they reported fewer icky feelings.