8 Research-Based Reasons I Rose-Tint Some Childhood Memories

Looking on the bright side helps me reframe many adverse childhood experiences.

Posted Sep 11, 2019

Earlier this week, a first-of-its-kind study (Bethell et al., 2019) from Johns Hopkins University reported that adults over age 18 who self-reported having more positive childhood experiences (PCEs) tended to have better adult mental health, a lower risk of depression, and healthier adulthood relationships.

The seven items on a PCE psychometric assessment include answering "yes" or "no" to a prompt, "Before the age of 18, I ..."

  1. was able to talk with the family about my feelings
  2. felt that my family stood by me during difficult times
  3. enjoyed participating in community traditions
  4. felt a sense of belonging in high school
  5. felt supported by friends
  6. had at least two non-parent adults who took a genuine interest in me
  7. felt safe and protected by an adult in my home. 
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
These are the 10 adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Each of these items counts for one point as part of an individual's 1-10 ACE score.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

This study also found that positive childhood experiences (PCEs) and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are two sides of the same coin. Even if someone had a high ACE score, if they also had a relatively high PCE score, these positive factors seemed to minimize the psychological toll of ACEs.

A few days ago, I wrote about these findings in a post, "Seven Positive Childhood Experiences with Adulthood Benefits." In this follow-up post, I'm going to filter the new research by Christina Bethell and colleagues (2019) through my own life experience and eight other studies that illuminate how someone's explanatory style and viewpoint of memory can be reframed to "look on the bright side" of otherwise negative experiences by rose-tinting memories.

After taking an online ACE test and responding to the seven "yes or no" questions on the PCE survey, I realized that my PCE/ACE scores are an even 4–4 split. Theoretically, these results infer that I had an equal number of positive and adverse childhood experiences. When I saw these test results, the first thing that sprung to mind was the decision to see the proverbial glass as half-full, not half-empty.

As an adult, I've purposely chosen to be a "pragmatic optimist" and reframe negative experiences as challenges (not threats) and opportunities for growth. When I think back on my childhood, I choose to focus on the positive experiences and reframe negative experiences as "blessings in disguise" that make me stronger and more resilient (à la Kelly Clarkson).

As a young teenager, I lived in Brookline, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. In the 9th grade, a close circle of friends from The Park School and I would dress up in drag to go see The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Exeter Street theater every Friday night. Feeling a sense of belonging within this non-conformist subculture and having a weekly community-building ritual was a PCE godsend.

The title of this post is inspired by the Rocky Horror song "Rose Tint My World." The refrain to this glass-half-full anthem: "Rose tints my world and keeps me safe from my trouble and pain."

These lyrics came in handy when my parents' marriage fell apart, Dad moved to Australia, and I found myself trapped (as a gay teen) in a very homophobic boarding school with a dean who loved to bully and publicly humiliate me for being a "sissy." It was during this tsunami of ACEs that I began mastering the art of flipping the script and purposely finding silver-linings in otherwise dire situations.

Over the years, I've kept my antennae up for empirical evidence that corroborates the benefits of choosing to reframe reality in a way that promotes better mental health and helps keep my lifelong predisposition for clinical depression at bay

Of course, I'm not implying that someone who experienced physical, sexual, or verbal abuse should sugarcoat traumatic events and pretend nothing bad ever happened. Instead, my goal here is to filter research-based evidence from eight different studies through my own life experience in ways that might help readers who also have a relatively high ACE score boost their PCE factor.

8 Research-Based Reasons I Choose to Rose-Tint Some Childhood Memories

1. Adaptive Forgetting Can Facilitate Having the "Eye of the Tiger"

Parts of the mammalian brain are designed to purposely forget negative or traumatic memories that might interfere with achieving a goal, according to a study (Bekinschtein et al., 2018) in mice.

From life experience, I know that "adaptive forgetting" and "selective amnesia" of negative memories and childhood insecurities reduced crippling anxiety and boosted my ability to say, "Bring it on. I got this!" (See Is Sugar-Coating Bad Childhood Memories a Winning Strategy?)

2. Negative Memory Engrams in the Brain Can Be Reshaped 

Memories held in specific neural engrams can be broken apart and reshaped via specific dopamine-based neurons according to a study (Berry et al., 2018) on the fruit fly, Drosophila.

I can corroborate these findings from a human perspective: At a young age, I stumbled on the ability of Top 40 music to make me feel good and reinforce a target mindset and explanatory style (e.g., care-free, fun-loving, openness) that washed away negativity and rewired my brain. (See Music, Fiction, and the Neuroscience of Active Forgetting)

3. Adopting a "Stress-Is-Enhancing" Mindset Lowers Cortisol

Mental skills training sessions that teach people how to reframe "distress" (bad stress) as "eustress" (good stress) by adopting a "stress-is-enhancing" mindset elicit a protective psychophysiological response that lowers cortisol levels, according to a study (2019) by Candace Hogue at Penn State.

As an ultra-endurance athlete, I learned how to reframe extremely daunting circumstances (like running 135-miles nonstop in Death Valley) through a "stress-is-enhancing" lens that helped me view threats as life-affirming challenges and hard-wiring a "fake it till you make it" attitude in life and sport. (See 3 Counterintuitive Benefits of a Stress-Is-Enhancing Mindset)

4. Diversifying Experiences Can Facilitate Cognitive Flexibility and Creativity

"The Diversifying Experiences Model" (Gocłowska, Damian & Mor, 2018) posits that early life adversity and ACEs that fall within an inverted-U sweet spot can boost cognitive flexibility and foster "out-of-the-box" thinking in adulthood.

In many ways, I'm grateful for the "diversifying" experiences I had growing up. For example, even though being straight might have been easier, I learned so many valuable lessons about being authentic and true to myself through the process of coming out and mustering up the courage to declare "I am what I am." (See Having the Status Quo Turned Upside Down Can Free Your Mind)

5. Choosing Optimism Over Pessimism Is Associated With Health and Longevity

Changes in optimism are associated with better health over time in older adults and a longer lifespan. According to a recently published 30-year study (Lee et al., 2019) optimists live longer. Just knowing that optimism itself creates well-being motivates me to continue looking on the bright side and staying optimistic. (See Optimism Study Gives Optimists More Reason to Be Optimistic)

6. Viewing Childhood Memories from a 3rd-Person Perspective Can Add a Rose-Tint

The viewpoint through which someone recalls a childhood memory (e.g., like a fly on the wall or through their own eyes) may influence the accuracy and vividness of the memory, according to a review paper (2019) by Peggy St. Jacques.

In a recent statement, Jacques explained, "Our ability to edit our memories allows us to grow and change how we perceive both ourselves and our experiences. For example, by changing the way we feel about a troubling memory, we're able to learn and move forward, helping those suffering post-traumatic stress disorder as just one example." My life experience corroborates this hypothesis. (See Mastering the Art of Reframing Visual Perspectives in Memory)

7. Imagination Can Make Scary Situations Feel Safe on a Neural Level

Real-life attitudes about specific places that might trigger "avoidance behaviors" can be reshaped just by imagining that you're in that location with a much-liked person who makes you feel safe, according to a recent neuroscience-based study (Benoit et al., 2019). (See Imagination Can Alter Real-Life Attitudes on a Neural Level)

8. Eclectic Role Models Can Facilitate Valiant "Identity Construction"

As a teenager, I idolized certain musicians (e.g., Bruce Springsteen, Madonna) from the glory days of MTV as well as athletes, such as Björn Borg and Billie Jean King. These role models helped me identify character traits that I admired and influenced who I became as an adult.

A recent study (Ronkainen et al., 2019) suggests that having an eclectic mix of role models facilitates "identity construction" during adolescence. (See Role Models Who Break the Mold Fortify Bold Identity Construction

Hopefully, if you're someone who has a relatively high ACE score, these research findings and my life-learned lessons will help you reframe your PCE/ACE childhood experiences in a way that has some adulthood benefits.

References

Christina Bethell, Jennifer Jones, Narangerel Gombojav, Jeff Linkenbach, Robert Sege. "Positive Childhood Experiences and Adult Mental and Relational Health in a Statewide Sample: Associations Across Adverse Childhood Experiences Levels." JAMA Pediatrics (First published online: September 9, 2019) DOI: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2019.3007

1. Pedro Bekinschtein, Noelia V. Weisstaub, Francisco Gallo, Maria Renner, Michael C. Anderson. "A Retrieval-Specific Mechanism of Adaptive Forgetting in the Mammalian Brain." Nature Communications (First published: November 7, 2018) DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-07128-7

2. Jacob A. Berry, Anna Phan, Ronald L. Davis. "Dopamine Neurons Mediate Learning and Forgetting Through Bidirectional Modulation of a Memory Trace." Cell Reports (First published: October 16, 2018) DOI: 10.1016/j.celrep.2018.09.051

3. Candace M. Hogue "The Protective Impact of a Mental Skills Training Session and Motivational Priming on Participants' Psychophysiological Responses to Performance Stress." Psychology of Sport and Exercise (First published online: August 10, 2019) DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2019.101574

4. Małgorzata Anna Gocłowska, Rodica Ioana Damian, Shira Mor. "The Diversifying Experience Model: Taking a Broader Conceptual View of the Multiculturalism–Creativity Link." Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology (First published online: January 18, 2018) DOI: 10.1177/0022022116650258

5. William J. Chopik and Robin S. Edelstein. "Retrospective Memories of Parental Care and Health from Mid- to Late Life." Health Psychology (First published: November 5, 2018) DOI: 10.1037/hea0000694

Lewina O. Lee, Peter James, Emily S. Zevon, Eric S. Kim, Claudia Trudel-Fitzgerald, Avron Spiro III, Francine Grodstein, and Laura D. Kubzansky “Optimism Is Associated with Exceptional Longevity in 2 Epidemiologic Cohorts of Men and Women.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (First published: August 26, 2019) DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1900712116

6. Peggy L. St. Jacques "A New Perspective on Visual Perspective in Memory." Current Directions in Psychological Science (First Published online: July 12, 2019) DOI: 10.1177/0963721419850158

7. Roland G. Benoit, Philipp C. Paulus, and Daniel L. Schacter. "Forming Attitudes via Neural Activity Supporting Affective Episodic Simulations." Nature Communications (First published: May 17, 2019) DOI: 10.1038/s41467-019-09961-w

8. Noora J. Ronkainen, Tatiana V. Ryba, Harri Selänne. “She Is Where I’d Want to Be in My Career”: Youth Athletes’ Role Models and Their Implications for Career and Identity Construction." Psychology of Sport and Exercise (First published online: July 4, 2019) DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2019.101562

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