- When we are mentally stressed or highly emotional, we lose perspective.
- Positive reminiscence activates the brain regions that can help calm us down and enable us to think straight.
- It is a simple, powerful tool that anyone can use for reducing stress and distress.
“I don’t even remember what I liked to eat before. Or, rather, I can remember liking particular foods but they mean absolutely nothing to me now,” says 19-year-old Carola, her head clutched tightly between her hands.
‘Before’ was when she wasn’t in the grip of anorexia. It crept up on her during lockdown when she was on furlough from her job and had time to worry about all sorts of things that hadn’t really bothered her before. Her appearance was one of them.
She is desperate to get better, while simultaneously finding herself sabotaging every effort she makes.
“What were those foods?” I encourage her.
She shrugs, then a wan smile. “Macaroni cheese, an adult chili version.”
“Did you make it for friends?”
“Yes, we used to have hot mac-cheese nights and watch something on Netflix.”
I elicit more detail and store this information, along with an account of enjoying seafood at a beachside café in Italy and a raspberry trifle made by her mum and served in the garden one birthday. It is all recounted to me unenthusiastically in a flat voice.
Later in our session, I relax Carola deeply and then invite her to re-experience those vibrant occasions, as they truly were; to sense the warm atmosphere, salivate to the wafting aromas and relive the joyful sharing of tasty meals. With her negative, controlling thinking temporarily offline, she can re-locate those experiences. I see her smile. Something has come back for her. It is a first step.
Evoking positive memories is enormously powerful because, when we are in the throes of mental distress, such memories are the first things to disappear and we get a skewed sense of our world, where everything is suddenly grey; nothing brings joy; nothing matters but whatever unhealthy preoccupation is swamping us.
Much research backs this up. It is well known that people with depression recall only negative memories easily. One study showed that working with depressed people to generate a number of vivid and precious autobiographical memories and then, crucially, teaching them how to recall them at will when feeling low, had positive effects on mood.1
A study of 500 adults who had struggled with substance misuse use found that completing a brief exercise in which they selected a personal photo that captured a happy moment and described what was happening strengthened their wavering resolve to stay sober.
“These findings underscore the importance of offsetting the challenges of recovery with positive experiences,” said Bettina Hoeppner, an associate professor of psychology in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Recovery is hard and, for the effort to be sustainable, positive experiences need to be attainable along the way.”2
Other researchers have suggested that reminiscing about a positive experience can help calm us down, say, after a fight with a loved one or a confrontation with the boss. They established the stress-reducing effects by asking volunteers to plunge an arm into ice-cold water (a favourite experimental means of getting the stress hormone cortisol to surge); at the same time, half had to reminisce about something positive and half about something neutral. Positive reminiscence kept the expected surge in cortisol right down to just 15 percent of that experienced by the neutral memory group.3
In situations where we are distressed and out of our depth, even just a few minutes spent bringing vividly to mind someone who is supportive of us and whom we can always trust to be there if we need them can markedly bring down the stress.4 It is as if conjuring up images of our loved ones truly makes them available to us.
There is brain science to all this. Reminiscing about positive memories increases activity in the corticostriatal regions of the brain, which are involved in the processing of reward, as well as in the brain regions that get suppressed during stress – the prefrontal regions, which are concerned both with regulating emotion and with cognitive control. In effect, we can use mental pleasure to recover from physical and emotional pain; to help us keep emotionally grounded and think clearly.
We don’t even have to urge ourselves to be resilient, remind ourselves of our strengths, or expect the best. All we have to do is remember.
Our ability to evoke a positive memory is a huge, ever-readily available mental-health resource, free to all of us. No waiting lists. No training is required. Just reliving the good things that have gone before can help power us up again.
1 Dalgleish, T, Navrady, L et l (2013). Method-of-loci as a mnemonic device to facilitate access to self-affirming personal memories for individuals with depression. Clinical Psychological Science, 1, 2, 15662
2 Hoeppner, B B, Schick, M R et al (2019). Do self-administered positive psychology exercises work in persons in recovery from problematic substance use? An online randomized survey. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, doi: 10.1016/j.jsat.2019.01.006
3 Speer, M and Delgado, M (2017). Reminiscing about positive memories buffers acute stress responses. Nature Human Behavior, doi: 10.1038/s41562-017-0093
4 Datta, S and Bryant, R A (2019). Reconsolidating intrusive distressing memories by thinking of attachment figures. Clinical Psychological Science, doi: 10.1177/2167702619866387