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.
This method of focusing on context differs in important ways from other strategies we often employ to feel better about a bad situation. Unlike suppression, where bottled up emotions tend to come back stronger and more negative (since you’re not really dealing with them), it allows you to acknowledge the memory while decreasing the level of stress connected to it. And it's less cognitively demanding to accept the memory for what it is than to try reappraisal, in which you try to find a positive spin on the situation.
“If the tendency is to go back to the emotional aspects of the memories, the idea is to switch your attention to the non-emotional details and reduce the intensity with less effort,” says Ekaterina Denkova, Ph.D., first author of the study. She adds that focused attention can be used effectively in tandem with reappraisal.
Give it a try: Pick a memory, any memory. The more haunting and embarrassing, the better. Take a few minutes to think about how you felt during your epic fail. Are you blushing yet? Feeling a little queasy?
Now, switch from actress to director and focus on the context of the memory: What was the weather like? Who were you with? Were they wearing those hideous boots again? Walk yourself through the smallest details and check in with yourself emotionally. If your cheeks have stopped burning and your gag reflex has relaxed, you’re on the right track.