Intrusive Memories: A Research Roundup

A new journal article reviews the studies of why bad memories keep coming up.

Posted May 16, 2018

(c) Nandyphotos/fotosearch
Source: (c) Nandyphotos/fotosearch

Ever felt like you want to move on, but memories about someone or something in your past keep holding you back?  Now a soon-to-be--in-print research article, published online in March of this year, explains why.  Fortunately there's also good news. Multiple do-it-yourself techniques for releasing these intrusions can offer you cure alternatives.  For now however, here's the latest scoop on those pesky, and sometimes extremely distressing, repeated upsetting thoughts.

What kind of memories are likely to get stuck in your head?  Maybe someone broke up with you and you can't get that person out of your mind.  Someone treated you badly and thoughts of what they did play over and over in your mind.  Someone you love has died and your grief work seems to have no end.  Or perhaps you did something that you now regret and critical thoughts keep berating you.  In fact, any emotionally potent memory can keep replaying in your head. 

Intrusive thoughts

Psychologists refer to unwanted words and images that keep popping up in your mind as invasive thoughts, and alternatively by the broader term intrusive reexperiencing.  A comprehensive review article in the forthcoming June, 2018 issue of the esteemed journal Psychological Bulletin explores many former notions of why ideas get stuck in your head, plus adds some new ones.

Written by psychologists Elizabeth Marks, Anna Franklin and Lori Zoellner of the University of Washington, the article is titled, very aptly, "Can't Get It Out of My Mind."  This kind of systematic review of research up to this time on this topic has been long-needed, as it fills a significant gap in psychology's understandings of a very common and often significantly distressing phenomenon.

Why is a professional journal "review article" like this one particularly noteworthy?

An article reporting on a single research study offers its findings.  On the other hand, review articles can say that "5 out of 6 studies of this factor found that this hypothesis was incorrect."  That is, when multiple studies come to similar conclusions researchers can better conclude that their hypothesis is or is not correct.

For example, one study reported in this review article found that a tendency to ruminate leads to a tendency to experience intrusive thoughts.  Yet a second study found the opposite, that is, that there was no relationship between ruminating tendencies and frequency of invasive or intrusive thoughts (page 616).

Who experiences intrusive thoughts, and why?

The Marks, Franklin and Zoellner article begins by clarifying that persistent and distress" memories often occur for "normal people."  At the same time, intrusive thoughts can be associated with a full range of psychological disturbances: protracted grief, depression, anxiety, obsessive thinking and more, and especially PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

The journal article reviews the intrusive memories research with a goal to clarifying answers to three questions in particular:

1) What may have happened before the event that predisposed you to get a stuck idea?

2) What may have happened during the event? 

3) And after the event what may factor into your inability to make these thoughts go away?

Before the distressing event

Two factors seem to increase the liklihood that an event will trigger thoughts that stick around and keep reoccurring with undesirable frequency, causing you to feel distressed long after the event itself is over and done.

The first is pre-existing negative emotions.  It turns out that if you were already feeling significantly anxious, depressed, angry, mired in any intense negative emotion, the impact of a sudden emotionally intense event is likely to leave longer lasting impacts, including persistent intrusive thoughts, than if you had been calm at the outset.

The second is what psychologists refer to as negative appraisal style.  What do you say to yourself after a difficult event?  That's your appraisal style. A negative appraisal style increases the likelihood of intrusive memories subsequent to difficult experiences.

Do you criticize yourself if things went wrong?  "That was a silly thing for me to say."  Worse, do you harshly condemn and berate yourself?  "You're so stupid!"  Or do you accept yourself including your mistakes, console yourself, and maybe even look what you can learn from the unfortunate event?  "Woops.  Guess I messed up on that one.  That's disappointing.  Oh well; can't win 'em all.  Next time I'll ... "

During the distressing event

Psychological researchers distinguish between data-driven or bottom-up processing of information and conceptual, also called top-down, processing of information.  A website called simplypsychology.com describes the difference nicely:

Bottom-up processing is also known as data-driven processing, because perception begins with the stimulus itself. Processing is carried out in one direction from the retina to the visual cortex, with each successive stage in the visual pathway carrying out ever more complex analysis of the input.

Top-down processing refers to the use of contextual information in pattern recognition. For example, understanding difficult handwriting is easier when reading complete sentences than when reading single and isolated words. This is because the meaning of the surrounding words provide a context to aid understanding.

Multiple research studies concluded that data-driven processing is more likely to result in later intrusive memories than top-down conceptual-driven thinking in response to an emotionally potent event. 

That is, a person who just sees, hears and experiences the event without being able to develop a conceptual understanding of it has highest risk for later intrusive memories. Feeling bombarded by an event without a way to "get a handle on it" is most likely to yield later intrusive memories.

By contrast, being able to think about what is happening and develop an overview understanding of the context seems to have a protective impact.  That's what the researchers mean by conceptual processing.

Here's an example.  A client of mine several years ago went through a painful divorce.  He continued to have unwanted thoughts, especially guilty thoughts, about having initiated the end of the marriage.  Talking with him in a therapy session, we together did "conceptual processing."  That is, we reviewed the various marital incompatibilities that had led to his decision to leave the marriage.  With this no-blame understanding of why being married had produced on-going distress in both partners, and a realization that ending their marriage had been painful but ultimately healthier for both former spouses, the guilt and also the intrusive thoughts ceased. 

During the actual divorce, by contrast, my client had lacked this kind of overview understanding.  He was mostly just following his gut, which was screaming at him, "You're walking constantly on eggshells.  You are not happy.  Get out!"

After the distressing event

The factors preceding or during the event which predict increased likelihood of later intrusive thoughts turn out to be essentially the same ones that, if they occur after the event, predict greater frequency and intensity of subsequent in intrusive thoughts.

  • Being upset already with anger, anxiety or depression increases the risk. 
  • So does a tendency to do negative appraisal, that is, to view the event in negative terms such as "I shouldn't have...," I'm just a magnet for trouble," or "That proved that I'm terrible about...."
  • Likewise, being able to go from bottom-up data processing to conceptualizing the big picture decreases later intrusive-thought risk. 

These three factors predict also less persistence over time of the intrusive thoughts, and less intense distress associated with them. 

The Good News

Protect yourself from the risk factors for long-term intrusive thoughts after any bad experience—and remember, bad things do happen from time to time in everyone's life.  Here's three factors the journal article above suggests you can do something about as a trauma insurance policy.

1. Stay emotionally in a zone of well-being. See my free website prescriptionswithoutpills for ideas on how to do that. 

2. Train yourself to look on the sunny side after upsetting events. 

E.g., Tom, on the first day of a Hawaii famly vacation, ran out to ride the waves.  The waves though were far strong than he had anticipated.  The first one he tried crashed him onto the sand, breaking his arm. 

Negative appraisal: What a bummer. That wrecked my whole vacation. I've wasted all my time and money on being so stupid.  Everyone will be mad at me too for not being able to swim and play tennis with them.  I'm going to hate the whole week here.

Positive appraisal: Am I ever lucky!  If I wasn't such a strong and fast athlete, I would have had the strength or the reflexes to protect my head with my arm like I did.  The wave would have crashed my head on the sand.  I could have died!  Phew!  What a blessing!

3. Talk about what happened; that's how people switch from data-driven processing to conceptual processing.  Talking enables you to get an overview of what happened.  When you see an incident in context, and especially if you let yourself see it in a positive light, you become more self-accepting. 

And the moral of the story is...

As you travel along the road of life, there's always, from time to time, bumps. To minimize long-term emotional distress from the bumps, think about the three factors that predict long-after intrusive memories.  Keep yourself in a zone of well-being, look for sunny-side positive appraisals whatever happens, and talk it through with family and friends (or maybe even a therapist) if you have old upsetting thoughts that you still can't seem to shake.

As one of my son's college deans once told him, "Life is not meant to be an endurance contest.  Do what you need to do to enjoy it!"