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Mindfulness

The Benefits of Mindfulness When Thinking About Past Events

Mindfulness may help people with past depression handle memories of past events.

Key points

  • Individuals with a history of depression can find it difficult to manage their emotions when remembering personal past events.
  • Online mindfulness practice may help those with a depression history manage emotions in response to memories of personal past events.
  • With sufficient mindfulness practice, individuals with a history of depression may also experience reduced depressed mood.

As much as reminiscing about memories of past events can bring us joy and contentment, thinking about our past can also bring up thoughts and emotions that can be difficult to handle. This is especially true for people who are currently suffering from depression or who have suffered from depression in the past.

People with ongoing or past depression often experience more negative emotions and less positive emotions when thinking about personal past events compared to people without a history of depression. They may also respond to memories of past events in ways that can exaggerate negative mood and emotions—such as trying to avoid thinking about past events, thinking about past events in an evaluative and judgmental way, or trying to suppress their emotions when thinking about past events. Memories that come to mind spontaneously and unintentionally can be particularly difficult to handle.

 Bekir Dönmez/Unsplash
Source: Bekir Dönmez/Unsplash

Luckily, researchers are starting to find ways that may make it easier for people with depression to handle memories of past events. In our most recent publication on the topic, my co-authors and I investigated whether engaging in an online mindfulness program changed the way people with a history of depression regulate and handle their emotions when thinking about memories of personal past events.

In our study, people with a history of depression reported their use of several different strategies to regulate or manage their emotions in response to memories of past events that spontaneously popped up in their mind in everyday life and memories that they intentionally thought about in response to word cues. This included both strategies that may exaggerate negative emotions and strategies that tend to have more beneficial effects on mood and emotions.

The less-beneficial strategies that they reported on included:

  • trying to avoid thinking about past events
  • thinking about past events in an evaluative and judgmental way
  • trying to suppress emotions when thinking of past events

The more-beneficial strategies included:

  • changing the way they thought about the situation
  • being able to think about the memories without having to react to the thoughts and feelings

Approximately half of the participants in the study reported on these strategies before and after an eight-week period of engaging in an online mindfulness program, while the other half of the participants did not engage in the online mindfulness program during this period. This allowed us to assess whether participants engaging in the online mindfulness showed beneficial changes in the way they responded to memories of past events compared to the participants who did not engage in the online mindfulness program.

What Did the Study Find?

1. Engaging in online mindfulness practice increased the use of beneficial emotion-regulation strategies.

Participants who engaged in the online mindfulness program showed increased use of beneficial emotion-regulation strategies when thinking about memories of past events. They reported greater nonreactivity, or ability to think about their memories and feelings without having to react to them, in response to memories that came to mind spontaneously as well as memories that they intentionally thought about.

This type of nonreactivity toward thoughts and feelings is linked to acceptance of experiences. Therefore, increased nonreactivity in response to memories of past events suggests that the participants who engaged in online mindfulness training may have become more accepting of experiencing memories of past events and of the feelings that may accompany such memories.

In addition to showing increased nonreactivity in response to memories of past events, the participants who engaged in the online mindfulness program showed increased use of cognitive reappraisal or attempts to change the way they viewed the situation in response to memories of past events that came to mind spontaneously. This emotion-regulation strategy often has beneficial effects on mood.

Therefore, increased use of cognitive reappraisal to handle memories of past events that come to mind spontaneously in everyday life has the potential to reduce negative mood or feelings in the daily lives of people with a history of depression.

2. Engaging in online mindfulness practice did not change the use of less-beneficial emotion-regulation strategies.

While the online mindfulness program did increase the use of beneficial emotion-regulation strategies in response to memories of past events, it did not have an observable effect on the use of less-beneficial emotion-regulation strategies. One possible reason for this is that participants may not have engaged in sufficient mindfulness training for it to reduce their use of less-beneficial emotion-regulation strategies.

The online mindfulness program that participants engaged in was self-directed. This means that participants structured their mindfulness practice themselves, and many did not engage in very much practice.

Previous studies have shown that some effects of mindfulness practice may only occur after a certain amount of practice. Therefore, it is possible that participants in the present study engaged in too little mindfulness practice for it to have an observable effect on the less-beneficial emotion-regulation strategies that were assessed.

3. Engaging in at least four weeks of the mindfulness program led to a reduction in depression symptoms.

Those who engaged in at least four weeks of the mindfulness program showed additional beneficial effects of practicing mindfulness. This included further increases in the use of beneficial emotion-regulation strategies and a substantial reduction in depression symptoms. This shows that with sufficient mindfulness practice, people with a history of depression may both become better able to handle memories of past events and experience less depressed mood.

These findings provide promise for finding ways to help people with a depression history handle memories of past events, reduce negative mood in their everyday lives, and potentially protect against future episodes of depression. The present study was, however, a small one, and more and larger studies are needed to confirm the observed beneficial effects of mindfulness practice. More and larger studies will allow us to know with greater certainty how mindfulness practice may help people with a depression history handle memories of past events and reduce negative mood.

References

Isham, A.E., del Palacio-Gonzalez, A. & Dritschel, B. (2022). The effects of an online mindfulness intervention on emotion regulation upon autobiographical memory retrieval in depression remission: a pilot randomized controlled trial. Mindfulness. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-022-01983-8

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